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Eleventh Circuit: No Added Attorney Fees for Defending Fees

April 12, 2019 | Posted in : Fee Agreements, Fee Award, Fee Doctrine / Theory, Fee Entitlement, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Reduction / Fee Denial, Fee Request, Fee Shifting, Fees for Fees, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Law 360 story by Nathan Hale, “No Added Atty Fees in Nationstar Case, 11th Circ. Says,” reports that a Florida woman who won a judgment against Nationstar Mortgage LLC for charging improper fees is not entitled under state law to collect appellate attorney fees for her counsel's work defending an initial attorney fees award in the case, the Eleventh Circuit ruled.  The federal appeals court backed a lower court's decision to deny Sara Alhassid's request for attorney fees covering Nationstar's appeal based on a finding that the benefit would be purely for her attorneys and that she has no obligation to pay them for this work.

The appeals panel said it agreed with the district court that the controlling case on the issue is the Second District of Florida's ruling in B & L Motors Inc. v. Bignotti.  In that case, the state appeals court found that if a plaintiff has no interest in a fee award because it would not affect her payment obligation to her attorneys, then the plaintiff may not receive a fee award under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, according to the opinion.

“B & L Motors is exceedingly clear that a prevailing plaintiff may receive fees under FDUTPA only if a 'fee award is found to be in the interests of the client and if the fee arrangement is found to have contemplated payment for that work,'” the Eleventh Circuit said.  “Because we do not lightly disregard binding, on-point decisions of intermediate state appellate courts, we hold that B & L Motors compels the denial of appellate attorneys’ fees in this case.”

Alhassid's counsel, Reuven T. Herssein of Herssein Law Group PA, said that his side intends to seek an en banc rehearing of the decision, which he said promotes meritless appeals by mortgage companies and other large institutions and has a chilling effect on plaintiffs who bring and litigate these cases.  "In light of this decision, plaintiffs attorneys will shy away from taking on these kind of cases since we won on the merits of the appeal and the appellate court’s decision means we are not paid for the successful result we obtained for our client in the appellate court," he said.

According to the opinion, Alhassid's attorneys had said that they “took this case on a contingency basis,” and the district court found that meant that any fees resulting from the appeal of the fee award would “inure solely to the benefit of plaintiff's attorneys and not to plaintiff herself.”

The dispute stems from Bank of America's decision to place Alhassid’s reverse mortgage in default for failure to pay flood insurance on her property.  After acquiring Alhassid’s mortgage and note in April 2013, Nationstar called her loan due and payable and started a foreclosure action on the property in January 2014, according to case records.  Alhassid filed the suit as a proposed class action against Bank of America NA and Nationstar in February 2014 and was joined by Sarah Drennen in August 2014.  The two women filed their third amended complaint in December 2014, bringing three breach-of-contract claims, a claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the FDUTPA claim and a claim of violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

They alleged the two companies charged improper fees, placed loans in default when borrowers did not pay those fees and then charged more unlawful fees after the defaults, according to the opinion.  The district court in Miami denied class certification in August 2015, finding that the nine class definitions didn’t show commonality and only individualized evidence could prove wrongdoing.  The claims against Bank of America were ultimately dismissed voluntarily, but Alhassid won summary judgment against Nationstar on all but the good-faith and fair-dealing claim, which the court found to be duplicative, the opinion said.

Alhassid was awarded $5,000 in actual damages and $1,000 in statutory damages under the FDCPA, according the opinion.  The district court also found that she was entitled to attorney fees as the prevailing party under the FDUTPA and awarded her $435,704 in fees.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the award on appeal.  The case is Alhassid v. Nationstar Mortgage LLC, case number 18-11985, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.