PROTECTING YOUR ATTORNEY’S FEES AWARD IN A DIVORCE CASE
April 9, 2012 § 5 Comments
When you have worked hard on a case and prevailed, you’d like to be adequately compensated. You put on your proof of attorney’s fees and the judge makes a handsome award. Only problem is, the other side appeals and the COA tosses out your award, much to your chagrin. How should you have bulletproofed that award?
In the case of Alexander v. Alexander, decided March 27, 2012, the chancellor had awarded Amanda Alexander a judgment for nearly $32,000 in attorney’s fees in a divorce action against her husband, Khari. The COA reversed the special chancellor’s decision for failure of to make any findings of inability to pay or about the reasonableness of the request. Here’s what the opinion said on the point:
“An award of attorney[’s] fees is a matter largely within the sound discretion of the chancellor.” Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d 637, 648 (¶43) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (citing Smith v. Smith, 614 So. 2d 394, 398 (Miss. 1993). “Attorney[’s] fees should only be awarded in an amount that compensates for services rendered.” Id. at (¶44) (citing McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982)). The factors to be analyzed in determining whether to award attorney’s fees include: (1) “the relative financial ability of the parties;” (2) “the skill and standing of the attorney employed,” (3) the novelty and difficulty of issues in the case, (4) the responsibility required in managing the case, (5) “the time and labor required,” (6) “the usual and customary charge in the community,” and (7) whether the attorney was precluded from undertaking other employment by accepting the case. McKee, 418 So. 2d at 767.
¶15. The testimony showed Khari earned approximately $90,000 a year; however, Khari did not file a financial statement pursuant to Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05. Amanda asserts that her inability to pay her attorney’s fees was proven because the chancellor found her household expenses exceeded her income. The chancellor made no findings of fact on the issue of her inability to pay or Khari’s ability to pay. An itemized bill from Amanda’s attorney is included in the record; however, the chancellor did not examine the reasonableness of the fees. Before attorney’s fees are awarded, the chancellor must determine if the fees were fair, reasonable, and necessary. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d at 648 (¶44) (citing McKee, 418 So. 2d at 767). Since the chancellor failed to make findings pursuant to the McKee factors, we also reverse and remand on this issue.
In a divorce case, the party seeking an award of attorney’s fees must prove inability to pay. Deen v. Deen, 856 So.2d 736, 739 (Miss.App. 2003); Duncan v. Duncan, 915 So.2d 1124, 1128 (Miss.App. 2005); Sullivan v. Sullivan, 43 So.3d 536, 541 (Miss. App. 2010). Ability of the opposing party to pay must also be considered. Sarver v. Sarver, 687 So.2d 749, 756 (Miss. 1997).
Interestingly, the COA decision had already reversed and set aside the divorce in Alexander for failure to prove grounds before it addressed the award of attorney’s fees. There is no mention of the effect of that reversal on the fee award.
So what could counsel here have done to protect the attorney’s fees? Here are a few suggestions:
- It’s axiomatic that if you don’t put on the proper proof, the chancellor will not have the basis to make an adequate ruling. Print out the McKee factors and address every single one of them in your testimony. Don’t skip or skimp on anything! There is case law to the effect that, even if the chancellor never mentions McKee, he will presumed to have considered the factors IF there is evidence in the record that supports the award.
- Make sure you have adequate time records or other documentation in support of your testimony as to time spent, expenses, work done, and put your records into evidence. Here is a link to a helpful post on what you need to prove to get that award of attorney’s fees.
- If you feel that the chancellor has not made sufficient findings, file a Rule 59 motion and ask the judge to supplement his findings. Better yet, provide him or her with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on the point that address every applicable McKee factor.
When you have worked hard on a case, you want and deserve to be paid. Sometimes your client won’t be able to pay you, and your only realistic option is to look to the other party. Don’t leave it to chance. Make a bulletproof record.