Trial Perspectives

Litigating the Amount of Contractual Attorney’s Fees

Posted by David Adelstein on April 14, 2017
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Recovering attorney’s fees is a vital component of many claims. Parties that have a contractual or statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees want to know they will get a judgment for reasonable attorney’s fees if they prevail in the underlying action.   This oftentimes results in litigating the amount of fees.

There is authority that when parties seek fees pursuant to a statute, they are not entitled to fees associated with litigating the amount of fees. See State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Palma, 629 So.2d 830 (Fla. 1993).

What about if a party seeks fees pursuant to a contract? Can the party recover attorney’s fees associated with litigating the amount of contractual fees?  The answer is it depends on the contractual attorney’s fees provision. The broader the scope the greater the chance a party will be entitled to attorney’s fees for litigating the amount of contractual fees owed to the prevailing party.

In Trial Practices, Inc. v. Hahn Loeser & Parks, LLP, 42 Fla.L.Weekly D848a (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), the Second District addressed whether a prevailing party is entitled to recover contractual attorney’s fees associated with litigating the amount of reasonable attorney’s fees.   The Court held yes based on the scope of the contractual attorney’s fees provision since contracting parties are free to contract on the scope and issue of attorney’s fees.

The provision at-issue read in material part:

…prevailing party in any action arising from or relating to this agreement will be entitled to recover all expenses of any nature incurred in any way in connection with the matter, whether incurred before litigation, during litigation, in an appeal, . . . or in connection with enforcement of a judgment, including, but not limited to, attorneys’ and experts’ fees.

The court held that this language in the attorney’s fees provision was broad enough to encompass fees associated with litigating the amount of fees.

Remember, contracting parties are fee to negotiate and contract on the issue of attorney’s fees.  Based on the provision, a prevailing party will be entitled to attorney’s fees for litigating the amount of fees.  This perhaps may make a party think twice regarding litigating the amount of contractual fees if the issue can get resolved without an evidentiary proceeding on the amount. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Designating a Representative(s) to Serve as the Corporate Representative for Deposition

Posted by David Adelstein on April 07, 2017
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Corporate representative depositions play an important role in the discovery of any dispute involving a corporate party. A corporate representative deposition requires the corporate representative to speak on behalf of the company – they are not speaking based on their personal knowledge, but as to the company’s position regarding designated topics. In fact, the designated corporate representative does not have to have the most knowledge about a particular topic to be the representative. See Fla.R.Civ.P. 1.310(b)(6). See also Sybac Solar, GMBH v. 6th Street Solar Energy park of Gainesville, LLC, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D771a (Fla. 2d DCA 2017) (“The corporation is not required to designate ‘the witness with the most knowledge’ of the designated subject matter; indeed the witness is not required to have any personal knowledge whatsoever. And there may be a good reason why a corporation does not produce the most knowledgeable witness for deposition. For example, the person with the greatest knowledge of the subject matter ‘may not totally embrace the corporation’s position.’” Instead, the corporation is required to prepare the designated witness to testify regarding the designated subject matter.) (internal citations omitted).

Typically, the corporation can designate the representative(s) it wants to testify about the designated topics. With that said, the Second District in Sybac Solar explained that a deposing party that does not like the designated representative(s) can move the trial court to depose another corporate representative of its choice subject to the discretion of the trial court to issue a protective order.  

In this case, the deposing party moved to compel the opposing party to designate a certain individual as a corporate representative. The trial court granted the motion. The opposing party appealed –through a writ of certiorari since orders compelling a deposition can result in irreparable harm that cannot be undone on a final appeal. The Second District reversed in part because the individual had interests that were adverse to that of the company and would not be a proper corporate spokesperson; thus, the individual could not be a corporate representative for those topics.

I find this case frustrating. An entity should be entitled to designate those person(s) it wants to speak on the designated topics. The entity has a duty to prepare the person(s) to speak about the topics and the entity’s position because the person may not have, and is not required to have, the most knowledge about the topic. As long as the person is sufficiently prepared, the story should end.   If the person says “I don’t know” or “I don’t recall” during the entire deposition or gives wishy-washy answers (based on their lack of preparation), than that it is a different story.  But assuming the person is prepared, if the opposing party does not like the answers they are not precluded from taking depositions of other persons, or even the designated representatives, based on their personal knowledge. Otherwise, everyone will move to depose the person they want to serve as the corporate representative (which is probably the person with the most knowledge) which waters down this rule.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Punitive Damages for Business Torts

Posted by David Adelstein on March 31, 2017
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Punitive damages can be warranted in business torts, although you are dealing with a much tougher threshold. Typically, the misconduct warranting the punitive damages needs to be intentional, i.e., the defendant had knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and its high probability of damage and engaged in the misconduct anyway. See Fla. Stat. 768.72. This is because “‘the purpose of punitive damages is not to further compensate the plaintiff, but to punish the defendant for the wrongful conduct and to deter similar misconduct by it and other actors in the future.’”   See Bistline v. Rogers, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D706a (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) quoting Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp. v. Ballard, 749 So.2d 483, 486 (Fla. 1999). Thus, an award of punitive damages for a business tort will typically need to require evidence showing fraud, malice, or deliberately outrageous conduct. See Bistline, supra.

A party, however, just cannot come right out of the gate and sue for punitive damages. Rather, a party needs to file a lawsuit and thereafter make an evidentiary proffer supporting the intentional misconduct that it believes gives rise to punitive damages for a business tort. What is plead is an allegation – it is not evidence—and will not support an evidentiary proffer. Again, there needs to be an evidentiary proffer with evidence reasonably showing the basis of the intentional misconduct to support an award for punitive damages.   See Bistline, supra (reversing award of punitive damages because there was not reasonable evidentiary proffer and because trial court based amendment to assert punitive damages on allegations in complaint, which is not evidence).

It is important that a party moving for punitive damages properly make that evidentiary proffer with the court to allow it to amend its complaint to include these damages. This is important in any punitive damages proffer, particularly in business tort disputes where the threshold is greater.  In this manner, the procedural requirements in Florida Statute s. 768.72 are crucial to comply with. Because an impermissible punitive damages award is difficult to remedy on appeal, a defendant will be entitled to certiorari review “to determine whether a trial court has complied with the procedural requirements of section 768.72…but not the sufficiency of the evidence.” See Bistline, supra, quoting Tilton v. Wrobel, 198 So.3d 909, 910 (Fla. DCA 2006).

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Significant Relationship between Claim and Agreement to Arbitrate

Posted by David Adelstein on March 25, 2017
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Just because you have an agreement to arbitrate does not necessarily mean that every conceivable claim, including those unrelated to the agreement, are subject to arbitration.   For instance, if there are separate agreements—one with an arbitration clause and another without—does not mean that a claim related to the agreement without an arbitration clause will be subject to arbitration per the separate agreement.   There needs to be a “significant relationship” between the agreement containing the arbitration provision and the claim, as best explained as follows:

[T]he mere coincidence that the parties in dispute have a contractual relationship will ordinarily not be enough to mandate arbitration of the dispute.” Rather, “there must exist a significant relationship between the claim and the agreement containing the arbitration clause.” The Florida Supreme Court has expanded upon the definition of “significant relationship” as follows:

A “significant relationship” between a claim and an arbitration provision does not necessarily exist merely because the parties in the dispute have a contractual relationship. Rather, a significant relationship is described to exist between an arbitration provision and a claim if there is a “contractual nexus” between the claim and the contract. A contractual nexus exists between a claim and a contract if the claim presents circumstances in which the resolution of the disputed issue requires either reference to, or construction of, a portion of the contract. More specifically, a claim has a nexus to a contract and arises from the terms of the contract if it emanates from an inimitable duty created by the parties’ unique contractual relationship. In contrast, a claim does not have a nexus to a contract if it pertains to the breach of a duty otherwise imposed by law or in recognition of public policy, such as a duty under the general common law owed not only to the contracting parties but also to third parties and the public.

Timber Pines Plaza, LLC v. Zabrzyski, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D587a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017 (internal citations omitted).

An example of this can be found in the Time Pines Plaza case.   Here, an owner of a shopping outlet mall contracted to sell outparcels of land to a buyer.  The contract for sale contained an arbitration provision.   Thereafter, and prior to closing, the owner issued amended deed restrictions on one of the outparcels that required plans for future construction to be submitted to the owner for pre-approval. The buyer signed an acknowledgment of its receipt of the amended deed restrictions. (There was no arbitration clause in this deed restrictions.)

After closing, the owner sued the buyer arguing that the buyer commenced construction without obtaining plan approval as required by the amended deed restrictions.   The buyer counter-sued with a claim asserting that owner breached the contract for sale.   The owner moved to compel this counterclaim to arbitration based on the arbitration provision in that contract.

The issue was whether the owner’s original claim relating to a breach of the amended deed restrictions had a significant relationship to the contract for sale such that it should have been subject to arbitration. If it should have been, there was an argument that the owner waived the right to arbitrate by initiating the lawsuit.

The court found that no significant relationship existed between the contract for sale and the amended deed restrictions. There was no contractual nexus with the argument that the buyer commenced construction without seeking approval and the contract for sale. The contract for sale contained no obligation regarding commencing construction before obtaining prior approval; this issue was only contained in the amended deed restrictions. “Of course, the instant dispute would not exist had the parties not contracted for the purchase and sale of the North Outparcel, but ‘the mere fact that the dispute would not have arisen but for the existence of the contract and consequent relationship between the parties is insufficient by itself to transform a dispute into one ‘arising out of or relating to’ the agreement.’” Timber Pines Plaza, supra (citation omitted).

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Ebook: Innovative Attorney’s Fee Arrangements – Providing Value To YOUR Business Objectives

Posted by David Adelstein on March 23, 2017
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Are you interested in learning more about innovative attorney’s fee arrangements that provide value to your business and are outside of the boring, traditional hourly billing model.  If so, check out my ebook on Innovative Attorney’s Fee Arrangements:  Providing Value To YOUR Business Objectives.   You can also check out this ebook for Nook

 

 

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

Strict Construction of Condominium and Homeowner Association’s Declarations

Posted by David Adelstein on March 13, 2017
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Do you live in a condominium or in a homeowner’s association? If so, then you know you are governed by a Declaration of Condominium (in the case of condominium unit ownership) or a Declaration of Covenants (in the case of home ownership).   Please review these in addition to any amendments that may modify any of the paragraphs or covenants. These are recorded in the official, public records where the condominium or homes are located.   So, you can obtain these documents online with ease.

 

Declarations are covenants running with the land operating as a contract between the governing association and owners.   See Woodside Village Condominium Ass’n, Inc. v. Jahren, 806 So.2d 452 (Fla. 2002). For this reason, Declarations are strictly construed, particularly when it comes to restrictive covenants therein, since a Declaration serves as the constitution of the condominium or community.   See, Pudit 2 Joint Venture, LLP v. Westwood Gardens Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 169 So.3d 145, 147-48 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015); Lathan v. Hanover Woods Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 547 So.2d 319, 321 (Fla. 5th DCA 1989).

 

Sure, there is a statutory scheme relating to condominiums (Florida Statutes Chapter 718) and homeowner’s associations (Florida Statutes Chapter 720). These statutory schemes are certainly important. But, it all generally starts with the governing documents (constitution) of your condominium or community – particularly, the Declaration and all recorded amendments.  Before you become crosswise with your association, spend the time to read the Declaration and any amendments.  

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Don’t Neglect Mediation!

Posted by David Adelstein on February 26, 2017
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Don’t Neglect Mediation!

 

I believe in the process of mediation for all disputes, particularly complicated factual business disputes.   I use the word “process” because that is what mediation really is – a series of actions to achieve a particular end. Mediation can be a tiring process. A frustrating process. An informative process. A continuing process. A result oriented process. In certain instances, a futile process. Oftentimes, mediation is a mixture of all of the above. But, mediation allows parties to make a business decision based on their perception of risk — the risk of losing or the risk of a damages award (greater or lesser than expectations).   This business decision is important because a party, typically, never wants to bank on the resources and uncertainty that goes along with trial (and, then the appeal) without truly knowing where that case could have been resolved at during the course of a dispute.

 

The process of mediation should not be taken for granted. Preparation is important. I believe in learning the facts and developing the theme of the case and persuasively presenting this theme at mediation.   This may include demonstrative aids. A powerpoint. Handouts of key documents. A well-versed narrative. The participation of fact witnesses. The participation of experts. You name it — whatever best tells the story of the dispute.

 

I also want to hear the other side’s presentation of their theme because they may make good points that factor into a party’s business decision. Look, in my experience, there is no such thing as a slam dunk dispute. If it was truly a slam dunk dispute, parties could probably resolve the dispute without the assistance of counsel. As such, there are probably issues of contention that are worth considering, whether from a factual or legal perspective.

 

Once the presentations and themes are out there, there is strategy that goes into trying to get the case resolved. This strategy comes from the mediator and, of course, the parties. I prefer an aggressive mediator. What I mean by this is I prefer a mediator that is not afraid to be direct or assertive with a party. I know if a mediator is being direct with my client he/she is doing the same thing with the other party. I need a mediator that is going to be more than simply a message carrier. He/she needs to be able to get the parties to compromise from their positions and oftentimes the only way to do this is to be strategically direct and assertive. A good mediator finds a way to get cases resolved or puts the parties in the best position to make a business decision, even if that decision results in an impasse at mediation.  

The clip above from the movie Wedding Crashers is a great opening scene in a movie dealing with the mediation of a family law dispute.  Sure, this is an unorthodox mediation, but it was a hilarious strategy that allowed the parties to make a business decision.  

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

 

 

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Timely Filing Motion for Attorney’s Fees and Costs

Posted by David Adelstein on February 11, 2017
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Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.525 provides:

Any party seeking a judgment taxing costs, attorneys’ fees, or both shall serve a motion no later than 30 days after filing of the judgment, including a judgment of dismissal, or the service of a notice of voluntary dismissal, which judgment or notice concludes the action as to that party.

This is a specific statutory time period and a motion for rehearing does NOT toll this 30 day period. Jackson v. Anthony, 39 So.3d 1285, 1286 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010). This means that a motion for a final judgment taxing attorney’s fees and costs must be made within 30 days after the filing of a judgment or voluntary dismissal that concludes the action as to that party. (A court in certain circumstances may grant an extension of time to this 30 day period if the motion for extension is filed within 30 days).   Not timely filing a motion for attorney’s fees and costs can result in…(you guessed it)…a loss of a party’s right to recover attorney’s fees and costs.

In Hovercraft of South Florida, LLC v. Reynolds, 42 Fla. L Weekly D367a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017), the plaintiffs prevailed and received a final judgment. The defendant moved for a new trial and/or rehearing which was denied.   Within 30 days of the denial of the defendant’s motion for rehearing, but well outside the 30 days from when the final judgment was entered, the plaintiffs moved for attorney’s fees and costs. However, the motion for attorney’s fees was not timely filed within 30 days of the filing of the final judgment meaning…(you guessed it again)…the plaintiff’s lost the right to recover their attorney’s fees and costs!!!  Do not let this happen to you.  

Notably, an exception to this 30 day requirement is if the final judgment itself determines entitlement to attorney’s fees reserving only the right to determine the quantum of the reasonable attorney’s fees.   Hovercraft of South Florida, supra (“In order to avoid the thirty-day requirement, the judgment itself must determine entitlement to attorney’s fees and costs and reserve jurisdiction only as to the amount owed.”) Notwithstanding this exception, file the motion for attorney’s fees and costs within 30 days — no excuses.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

 

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A Contractual Waiver of the Right to Challenge Venue is Enforceable

Posted by David Adelstein on February 03, 2017
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on A Contractual Waiver of the Right to Challenge Venue is Enforceable

Many contracts contain a forum selection provision or a venue provision.   Contracts may even contain language that parties agree not to challenge or otherwise waive the venue of any filed lawsuit.

An example of such a provision was included in an operating agreement:

This Agreement is to be construed and governed by the laws of the State of Florida (without giving effect to principles of conflicts of laws). Each party hereto irrevocably agrees that any legal action or proceeding arising out of or in connection with this Agreement may be brought in any state or federal court located in Florida (or in any court in which appeal from such courts may be taken), and each party agrees not to assert, by way of motion, as a defense, or otherwise, in any such action, suit or proceeding, any claim that it is not subject personally to the jurisdiction of such court, that the action, suit or proceeding is brought in an inconvenient forum, that the venue of the action, suit or proceeding is improper or that this Agreement or the subject matter hereof may not be enforced in or by such court, and hereby agrees not to challenge such jurisdiction or venue by reason of any offsets or counterclaims in any such action, suit or proceeding. 

Of relevance, this venue provision allowed the parties to bring suit in any state or federal court in Florida and stated that the parties agree not to assert that the venue of any suit is improper.

A dispute arose between the members of the operating agreement. One of the members filed suit against the other member in Martin County, Florida. The other member moved to transfer venue to Palm Beach County, Florida arguing that nothing tied the dispute to Martin County. The trial court agreed and transferred venue to Palm Beach County.   The appellate court, however, reversed. Why? Because the parties agreed that a lawsuit could be filed in any Florida court and, importantly, that they each waive the right to challenge venue.   The parties’ agreement to waive any challenge to venue was enforceable. See Powers, Jr. v. Melick, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D288b (Fla. 4th DCA 2017).

Consider venue provisions when entering into and negotiating contracts – any type of contract.  

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Impeachment as to Prior Crimes in Civil Trials

Posted by David Adelstein on January 29, 2017
Evidence, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Impeachment as to Prior Crimes in Civil Trials

In a civil trial, I want to attack (impeach) the credibility of a testifying witness by bringing up a crime that witness committed. Can I do this?

When it comes to impeaching the credibility of a witness based on crimes, Florida Statute s. 90.610 states in material part:

(1) A party may attack the credibility of any witness, including an accused, by evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of 1 year under the law under which the witness was convicted, or if the crime involved dishonesty or a false statement regardless of the punishment, with the following exceptions:

(a) Evidence of any such conviction is inadmissible in a civil trial if it is so remote in time as to have no bearing on the present character of the witness.

So, in a criminal trial, a witness’s credibility can be attacked if (1) the witness was convicted of a crime in excess of one year (a felony) or (2) the witness was convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or a false statement regardless of the length of punishment (a misdemeanor involving dishonesty or a false statement).   But, in a civil trial, not so fast – this type of impeachment will not be permitted if the conviction is remote in time that it has no bearing on the character of the witness.   If the crime is so remote in time, there is no probative value to impeach the witness other than the prejudicial effect the knowledge of the crime may have with the jury. See, e.g., Trowell v. J.C. Penny Co., Inc., 813 So.2d 1042 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) (“The statute directs the court to determine whether the past convictions have a bearing on the present character of the witness. Evidence of theft and shoplifting convictions in the early 1980s with no subsequent convictions would tend to suggest that the witness no longer has a propensity toward dishonesty, and thus such convictions would have little or no bearing on his present character. Evidence of a continuing pattern of theft convictions tends to suggest that the appellant’s character in this regard remains unchanged.”).

The objective in attacking a witness’s credibility based on a crime (as permitted above) is that the witness cannot be trusted—their testimony is nothing but a bunch of lies.

The procedure to attack a witness’s credibility based on a crime is quite simple.   The witness will be asked whether he/she has ever been convicted of a felony or convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving dishonesty. If the witness says yes, the next question will be to ask the witness how many times has he/she been convicted of such crimes. The lawyer impeaching the witness will already know the answer to these questions. What if the witness lies? If the witness lies or gives a misleading answer, the lawyer can impeach that testimony by introducing a certified copy of the judgment of conviction for each crime (which is usually a judgment of the conviction and the sentence). This allows the lawyer to prove that the witness has been convicted of a particular crime, however, the lawyer cannot go into the nitty gritty about the crime(s). See Porter v. State, 593 So.2d 1158, 1159 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992).

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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