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In Florida, Prevailing Party Fees are a Matter of Degree at Trial

October 10, 2020 | Posted in : Fee Agreement, Fee Award, Fee Clause, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Shifting, Prevailing Party Issues, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Daily Business Review story by Raychel Lean, “No Winners Here: A Nuance on Attorney Fees for Prevailing Party in South Florida” reports that when it comes to scoring attorney fees, it’s not enough to just prevail on something at trial.  That’s according to a ruling from the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which found a South Florida commercial plaintiff didn’t win in a big enough way to justify an attorney fee award.  It’s a ruling that underscored the limits of Florida’s prevailing-party rule, finding that although a judge did award money to the plaintiff, it would be a stretch to call that a triumph.

The dispute began in 2014, when Fort Lauderdale air carrier Skylink Jets Inc. sued a pilot who quit before his contract ended.  Defendant Martin Klukan had agreed to accept an $8,900 loan for flight training and expenses in exchange for two years of service, but had also signed a second agreement that said he’d be on the hook for that money if he quit or was fired for cause.  The second agreement included a prevailing-part fee provision, and said all previous contracts between Skylink and Klukan were “null and void,” according to the ruling.

So when the pilot quit in March 2014, Skylink demanded $20,000 in training expenses.  The dispute went to a bench trial before Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes, who found the pilot had breached his training expense contract with Skylink, but denied the company’s four other claims.

Haimes awarded $6,600 in damages, which grew to $9,200 with interest.  That recovery was small compared with the $45,360 in attorney fees it took to get there.  But Haimes denied a fee award, remarking, ”This is a tough one,” and reasoning Skylink hadn’t prevailed on any significant issues, according to Wednesday’s opinion.

The Fourth DCA found that was the right call, explaining that just because the plaintiff landed an affirmative judgment, it wasn’t automatically the prevailing party.  Fourth DCA Judge Robert Gross wrote the ruling, backed by Fourth DCA Judge Cory Ciklin and Palm Beach Circuit Judge Carolyn Bell, sitting by special designation.

The appellate panel looked to 1992 Florida Supreme Court case Moritz v. Hoyt Enterprises Inc., which held that being a prevailing party means succeeding on “significant issues,” and has since given trial judges broad discretion in applying that to cases.  The Fourth DCA acknowledged that it has previously suggested a breach of contract case can’t ever result in a tie.  But because those statements didn’t pertain to the issues on appeal in those scenarios, they didn’t establish precedent.

“Indeed, while some of this court’s cases state that one party must prevail in a breach of contract action, we have also left open the possibility that there may be compelling circumstances in which a trial court may determine that neither party prevailed in a breach of contract action,” the opinion said