September 7, 2017
A recent Texas Lawyer article by Trey Cox and Jason Dennis, “How to Determine When Litigation Costs Include Attorney Fees,” covers attorney fee recovery in Texas. This article was posted with permission. The article reads:
Under the American Rule, a party may only recover attorney fees on certain narrow claims. When a party has some claims that support the award of attorney fees and some claims that do not, then the party must segregate the recoverable attorney fees from the nonrecoverable attorney fees, as in Tony Gullo Motors I v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299, 311 (Tex. 2006). The need to segregate fees is a question of law, and the courts of appeals apply a de novo standard of review.
Similarly, when a plaintiff has multiple related claims against multiple defendants, the plaintiff is required to segregate the fees owed by one defendant from any fees incurred while prosecuting the claim against any settling defendants, according to Stewart Title Guaranty v. Sterling, 822 S.W.2d 1, 11 (Tex. 1991).
Generally, where a party has failed to properly segregate their claims, and an award of attorney fees has been erroneously awarded, the case requires remand in order to determine what attorney fees are recoverable. However, it is important to note that the subsequent decision in Green International v. Solis, 951 S.W.2d 384, 389 (Tex. 1997), did state that a failure to segregate fees "can result in the recovery of zero attorneys' fees." The court did not explain the circumstances under which an award of zero attorney fees would result from a failure to segregate. The evidence of unsegregated fees requiring a remand on the issue of attorney fees is more than a scintilla of evidence.
The party seeking fees may only present evidence relating to services that were necessarily rendered in connection with the claims for which attorney fees are recoverable, as in Flint & Associates v. Intercontinental Pipe & Steel, 739 S.W.2d 622, 624 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1987). If a party tries to present evidence relating to services that were rendered in connection with claims that attorney fees are not recoverable, a party must object. Failure to object to nonrecoverable attorney fees constitutes waiver (see Green International, at 389). The issue of failing to segregate is generally preserved "by objecting during testimony offered in support of attorneys' fees or an objection to the jury question on attorneys' fees," as in McCalla v. Ski River Development, 239 S.W.3d 374, 383 (Tex. App.—Waco 2007).
Inexorably Intertwined Damages
In Texas, an exception to segregating evidence of attorney fees developed over the years. Where the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction, and were so interrelated that their "prosecution or defense entails proof or denial of essentially the same facts," it was held that the segregation requirement could be avoided (see Stewart Title at 11). The initial exception was phrased such that if an attorney could claim that the "causes of action in the suit are dependent on the same set of facts or circumstances, and thus are 'intertwined to the point of being inseparable,' the parties suing for attorney fees may recover the entire amount covering all claims."
After the holding in Stewart, which first acknowledged an exception to the requirement of segregating fees for claims that are intertwined, the courts of appeals were flooded with claims that recoverable and unrecoverable attorney fees are so intertwined that they could not be segregated. (See, e.g., Tony Gullo at 312.) For many years after the recognition of the exception to segregation, parties tried to escape the segregation requirement by generically claiming that they could not segregate the claims. They relied on the recognized exception to the duty to segregate when the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction and were so interrelated that their prosecution or defense entailed "proof or denial of essentially the same facts."
The Texas Supreme Court has now reined in this exception, providing that if attorney fees relate solely to a claim for which such fees are not recoverable, a claimant must segregate recoverable from unrecoverable fees, but when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim that they are so intertwined, they need not be segregated.
For example, the court explained that certain legal services such as: "requests for standard disclosures, proof of background facts, depositions of the primary actors, discovery motions and hearings, [and] voir dire of the jury" wouldn't be barred from recovering attorney fees just because they served multiple purposes. However, the court was careful to point out that the mere presence of intertwined facts will not make tort fees recoverable. The new exception to the necessity of segregating fees is that "only when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim" then they can be considered as being so intertwined as to not need segregation. The segregation requirement can be met by offering expert opinion as to how much time was spent in relation to the recoverable claims versus the unrecoverable claims.
Defending Against Segregation
Whether supporting or attacking an award of attorney fees, the expert must deal specifically with segregation of fees. The party must segregate fees incurred in connection with nonrecoverable claims, claims against other parties, or other lawsuits.
Trey Cox is a partner at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst. He has spent nearly 20 years helping clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to entrepreneurs, resolve large, complicated and often high-profile business disputes. Jason Dennis is a partner at the firm. He has trial and appellate experience representing a diverse group of clients from Fortune 500 companies, to bankruptcy trustees, to individuals both as plaintiffs and defendants.