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Florida Supreme Court Rules on Fee Issue in Insurance Coverage Litigation

October 24, 2017 | Posted in : Articles, Contingency Fees / POF, Coverage of Fees / Duty to Defend, Fee Agreements, Fee Award, Fee Calculation Method, Fee Entitlement, Fee Expert / Member, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Statute, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing, Lodestar / Multiplier, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent FC&S Legal article by Steven Meyerowitz, “The Florida Supreme Court Just Made It Easier for Insureds’ Attorneys to get Big Fee Awards,” reports on a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court in Joyce v. Federated National Ins. Co.  The article reads:

The Florida Supreme Court, in an insurance coverage dispute, has rejected appellate court rulings that trial courts may apply a contingency fee multiplier to an award of legal fees to a prevailing party only in “rare” and “exceptional” circumstances.

The Case

William and Judith Joyce, an elderly retired couple, filed a claim for insurance benefits with their homeowners’ insurance carrier, Federated National Insurance Company, following water damage to their home. Federated National denied coverage on the basis of alleged material misrepresentations made by the Joyces in the application process – namely, that the Joyces had failed to disclose certain losses they had with their previous carrier.

The Joyces hired an attorney on a contingency fee basis and sued Federated National, alleging that the insurer had wrongfully denied their claim. After months of litigation, Federated National finally agreed to settle.  The parties stipulated that the Joyces were entitled to recover reasonable legal fees under Florida Statutes Section 627.428.

At the fee hearing, the trial court heard testimony from the Joyces’ attorney and fee expert and Federated National’s fee expert.  The trial court also examined certain evidence exhibits, including time records for the Joyces’ attorney and a copy of the contingency fee agreement.

After the hearing, the trial court awarded the Joyces $76,300 in attorneys’ fees, using a two-step process.  First, the court calculated the “lodestar” amount – the number of hours reasonably incurred by the Joyces’ attorney, multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate – as being $38,150, or 109 hours reasonably expended at a reasonable hourly rate of $350.  Second, the trial court applied a contingency fee multiplier of 2.0 to the lodestar amount.

Federated National appealed both the trial court’s calculation of the lodestar amount and its use of the contingency fee multiplier.  The appellate court affirmed the lodestar amount but reversed the trial court’s use of a contingency fee multiplier, concluding that the lodestar approach included a “strong presumption” that the lodestar represented the “reasonable fee.”

Florida Law

Section 627.428, Florida Statutes provides:

(1) Upon the rendition of a judgment or decree by any of the courts of this state against an insurer and in favor of any named or omnibus insured or the named beneficiary under a policy or contract executed by the insurer, the trial court or, in the event of an appeal in which the insured or beneficiary prevails, the appellate court shall adjudge or decree against the insurer and in favor of the insured or beneficiary a reasonable sum as fees or compensation for the insured’s or beneficiary’s attorney prosecuting the suit in which the recovery is had.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Decision

The court quashed the appellate court’s decision.  First, the court reviewed its precedent regarding contingency fee multipliers and declared that it was “clear” that it had “never limited the use of contingency fee multipliers to only ‘rare’ and ‘exceptional’ circumstances.”

In fact, the court said, it had recognized “the importance of contingency fee multipliers to those in need of legal counsel” and it had made clear that trial courts “could consider contingency fee multipliers any time the requirements for a multiplier were met.”

In the court’s opinion, the contingency fee multiplier provided trial courts with the “flexibility” to ensure that lawyers who took a difficult case on a contingency fee basis were “adequately compensated.”The court rejected the argument that a contingency fee multiplier encouraged “nonmeritorious claims” and said, instead, that solely because a case was “difficult” or “complicated” did not mean that the case was nonmeritorious.  “Indeed, without the option of a contingency fee multiplier, those with difficult and complicated cases will likely be unable or find it difficult to obtain counsel willing to represent them,” the court said.

The court then disagreed that the possibility of receiving a contingency fee multiplier amounted to a “windfall.”  The court concluded that there was not a “rare” and “exceptional” circumstances requirement before a contingency fee multiplier could be applied.  It decided that the trial court’s findings, “which properly considered the complexity of these types of cases and this case in particular,” were not in error, and it ordered the appellate court to reinstate the reinstate the attorneys’ fees award.