Prevailing Party for Purposes of Attorney’s Fees in Breach of Contract Claims
To be entitled to attorney’s fees, there needs to be a contractual or statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees (absent serving a proposal for settlement). There is oftentimes the misconception in breach of contract cases that the party that recovers a positive net judgment will automatically recover their attorney’s fees. While, certainly, sometimes this is the case, this is NOT what you should be banking on. The law has tried to progress to a point where it does not want certain cases to be driven solely by the prospect of recovering attorney’s fees just because you won $1.
The Florida Supreme Court in Moritz v. Hoyt Enterprises, Inc., 604 So.2d 807 (Fla. 1992) held that in a breach of contract action the significant issues test applied to determine the prevailing party for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees. A party prevails on the significant issues if the party prevails on any significant issue in the case that achieved a benefit sought by the parties in the action.
A year later, the Florida Supreme Court in Prosperi v. Code, Inc., 626 So.2d 1360 (Fla. 1993) addressed this significant issues test in the context of a construction lien action where the contractor received a net judgment in its favor but did not prevail on its construction lien (that provided a statutory basis for fees). In this case, the owner prevailed on the contractor’s lien claim but the contactor prevailed in a breach of contract action and, therefore, recovered a net judgment in its favor. For purposes of the case, a net judgment was “when the claimant fails to foreclose a mechanic’s lien but obtains a judgment for the underlying claim which exceeds any claim of the owner.” Prosperi, 626 at n.1. Here, the Court explained that recovering a net judgment is a significant factor to determine the prevailing party for purposes for purposes of attorney’s fees, but was NOT the only consideration. The equities of the case must be considered at the trial court’s discretion to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues to be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.
Years later, this issue was brought up again to the Florida Supreme Court in Trytek v. Gale Industries, Inc., 3 So.3d 1194 (Fla. 2009), as to whether the significant issues test applied when a contractor obtained a net judgment against an owner on its lien even though the lien amount was reduced by the owner’s claim for repair costs. In finding that the significant issues test applied, the court further explained that the trial court has discretion to examine all factors including issues litigated, claim amount, amount recovered, and counterclaims, and can determine that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.
As you can see, the trend to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a breach of contract action is to apply the significant issues test. Because the trial court has the discretion to examine the equities to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues in a given case, there is not any objective or bright-line rule to refer to in order to determine whether your situation will deem you the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. This component makes it challenging to predict how a trial judge or arbitrator may rule and whether a party will be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. Recovering a net judgment is still an important factor, but it will not be the sole deciding factor because the prospect of a party recovering $1 and being deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees may prevent that party from becoming reasonable with their settlement terms.
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