On Pleading for Recovery of Attorney Fees

The Dallas Court of Appeals has now joined two other Texas appellate courts in holding that “A post-verdict motion requesting attorney’s fees filed before the entry of a final judgment is a sufficient pleading to support an attorney’s fee award.” The Court also disposed of the appellant’s argument that a $50,000 fee award was unreasonable because it far exceeded the $11,000 in damages found by the jury, holding that the issue was waived by failing to request a reporter’s record of the hearing.

Nisby v. Dentsply Int’l, Inc., No. 05-14-00814-CV

Nonsuit Does Not Negate TCPA Motion to Dismiss

The Texas Citizens’ Participation Act continues to be a powerful tool in certain types of commercial cases. In this instance, the publisher of Petroleum News Bakken managed to obtain and affirm a judgment of dismissal and attorney fees in a business disparagement and tortious interference case. The dispute arose out of a newspaper article that stated no records could be found for wells that Breitling Oil & Gas claimed to have drilled in North Dakota. The publisher moved to dismiss under the TCPA, which shifted the burden to the burden to the plaintiff to come forward with prima facie evidence of each element of its claims. Breitling responded with a notice of nonsuit, but that didn’t stop the trial court from moving forward with the hearing and awarding the defendant $88,444.58 in attorney fees and expenses. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the nonsuit did not moot the pending motion to dismiss because the defendant had already made a “pending claim for affirmative relief” through its request for attorney fees and sanctions. The Court also rejected Breitling’s argument that the attorney fees should have been tried to a jury, noting that the record did not show that Breitling ever objected to the trial court making findings on the reasonableness of the fees awarded.

Breitling Oil & Gas Corp. v. Petroleum Newspapers of Alaska, LLC, No. 05-14-00299-CV

Eight Corners Say No Defense and No Indemnity

The Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s judgment awarding approximately $46,000 in attorney fees in a denial of coverage dispute. The case was brought by a homebuyer who sued his builders for a number of defects.  The buyer obtained a judgment against the builders in arbitration. The builders had tendered the buyer’s claim to their insurer, Oklahoma Surety Co., but OSC denied coverage for both the defense of the case and ultimate liability. After arbitration, the builders assigned their coverage claim to the buyer, who then sued OSC for the builders’ defense costs and for indemnification under the policy. The trial court ruled that OSC had a duty to the defend the case, but had no duty to indemnify for damages. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that an exclusion for property damage to “your work” applied under the “eight corners” rule, thereby barring both coverage and the duty to defend.

Oklahoma Surety Co. v. Novielo, No. 05-13-01546-CV

Lodestar Does Not Control Fee Award Against J.C. Penney

The Dallas Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s award of $3.1 million in attorney fees following the settlement of a shareholder derivative suit against J.C. Penney. The settlement required J.C. Penney to stop guaranteeing the unvested incentive equity awards of certain officers, which the plaintiffs’ evidence showed to be worth $62 million over the four years covered by the settlement. The settlement agreement permitted the plaintiffs to apply for a fee award to “compensate Plaintiff’s Counsel for the results achieved in the Action and the risks of undertaking the prosecution of the Action on a contingent basis.” Although plaintiffs’ evidence showed that the lodestar fee for the case would have been $558,123.50, the Court held that the specific language of the parties’ agreement justified a departure from the lodestar. The Court further held that the $3.1 million award was reasonable because it represented 5% of the monetary value of the settlement, citing a number of shareholder derivative cases that also approved fee awards based on a percentage of the settlement value.

J.C. Penney Co., Inc. v. Ozenne, No. 05-13-01601-CV

Blog Post Protected by TCPA, But Pro Bono Defense Means No Attorney Fees

Attorney Baltasar Cruz sued for libel against the operators of the Burnt Orange Report, which published a statement that Cruz had been “thrown out three times, finally by the police, of an Elizabeth Edwards book signing event in Dallas several years ago.” The defendants moved to dismiss on anti-SLAPP grounds. The trial court granted the motion and awarded the defendants their attorney fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the case, but reversed on the award of attorney fees.

Cruz raised a remarkable 121 issues for appellate review, taking up 25 pages of non-word count briefing. The Court of Appeals did not find that lack of conciseness persuasive — see Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(f) — nor did it care for the absence of headings, divisions, or groupings in the brief’s 69 pages of argument. The Court also noted that the brief lacked legal authority and failed to identify the evidentiary objections Cruz was seeking to vindicate on appeal. As a result, the Court deemed many of Cruz’s “multifarious” issues to be waived. On the merits of the anti-SLAPP motion, the Court quickly disposed of Cruz’s claim that the statement was not a “matter of public concern” because he was a candidate for judicial office at the time the blog post was published and a candidate’s character is relevant to his qualification for public office. Cruz also could not establish that the statement was published with malice just because the defendants had not been present at the book signing incident, while the defendants averred they had relied on several sources for their account.

However, the Court of Appeals vacated an award of $158,521.50 in attorney fees to one group of defendants because they had not actually “incurred” those fees. Since their attorneys had taken the case pro bono, the clients were not personally responsible for payment of the claimed fees. However, the Court sustained a separate fee award of $31,783.75 to another defendant, holding that there was evidence showing that party was personally liable for those fees.

Cruz v. Van Sickle, No. 05-13000191-CV

Frivolous Appeal, Part II

Following up on an opinion issued last month that ruled an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a special appearance was frivolous, the Court of Appeals has now awarded the appellee sanctions of $9,650 in attorney fees and $191.25 in expenses as damages from the frivolous appeal. The Court shaved off $2,325 from the appellee’s fee application because some of her attorney’s billing entries either did not relate to the appeal or consisted of block billing that contained a mix of appellate and non-appellate activities.

Estate of Ardyce Deuel-Nash, Deceased (II), No 05-14-00128-CV

A Prevailing Party Fee Provision Does Not Make Attorney Fees Compensatory Damages

When a judgment judgment for breach of contract is entered that includes an award of attorney fees, the defendant is generally not required to supersede that fee award in order to suspend judgment. Instead, the defendant only has to supersede post-judgment interest on the award for the expected duration of the appeal. In this case, Highland Capital Management was awarded $2.8 million in attorney fees, but the defendant only bonded out $287,000. Highland moved to increase the supersedeas bond, arguing that the attorney fees were actually compensatory damages because the parties’ contract contained a clause requiring the defendant to pay Highland’s fees in the event of a breach. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, essentially concluding that an award of attorney fees under the contract was no different than an award of attorney fees under Chapter 38 of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code (which Highland had also sought in its pleadings and at trial).

Highland Capital Mgmt., L.P. v. Daugherty, No. 05-14-01215-CV

Errors of Preservation

A builder sued the prospective buyers of a townhome for breach of contract and fraud after they backed out of the sale before closing. The Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict for the buyers. The seller’s first issue on appeal was simply that “the evidence demonstrates [buyers] committed fraud against [seller],” a complaint that was too broad and generic to preserve any specific error. The Court also affirmed an award of $9,675 in attorney fees to the buyers under a prevailing-party clause of the contract, holding that the seller’s briefing about that award failed to discuss the evidence concerning the fees and did not explain how the cited case law should be applied to the jury’s finding.

Davenport Meadows LP v. Dobrushkin, No. 05-12-01471-CV

Crying “Uncle” Does Not Affect Prevailing Party Status

The issue in this case was whether the trial court erred in awarding attorneys’ fees to the defendant when the plaintiff dropped its claim under the Texas Theft Liability Act (“TTLA”)  a few days after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment.

Under the TTLA, the prevailing party is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees.  In this case, the plaintiff brought a TTLA claim against the defendant.  When the defendant moved for summary judgment, the plaintiff must have realized that it was going to lose.  Consequently, the plaintiff amended its complaint and removed the TTLA claim, effectively nonsuiting it.  Thus, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant was not a prevailing party and therefore not entitled to attorneys’ fees.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to award attorneys’ fees, holding that a party is still a prevailing party if the nonsuit was taken to avoid an unfavorable ruling on the merits.  This result was further cemented by the fact that at the hearing on attorneys’ fees, plaintiff’s attorney acknowledged that by filing its nonsuit the plaintiff “basically, said ‘Uncle.'”

BBP Sub I LLP v. Di Tucci

Court Rejects Defendant’s Attempt to Use Declaratory Judgment Act as a Vehicle to Recover Attorneys’ Fees

Among several issues on appeal in this dispute between a commercial landlord and tenant, the Court of Appeals considered whether the defendant could recover attorneys’ fees pursuant to the declaratory judgments act.  After the plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of contract for failing to construct ramps in compliance with the ADA, the defendant responded by requesting a declaratory judgment that he had no duty to pay for the ramps.  Because the defendant’s counsel admitted at trial that the issues raised in his declaratory judgment action would be resolved by the plaintiff’s breach of contract lawsuit, the court rejected the defendant’s attempt to recover attorneys’ fees, noting the rule that “a party cannot use the declaratory judgments act merely as a vehicle to obtain otherwise impermissible attorney’s fees.”

Cellular Sales of Knoxville, Inc. v. McGonagle