WORTHWHILE READING ON ATTORNEY’S FEES
February 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
A subject of vital interest to lawyer is, or should be, what it takes to get an award of attorney’s fees at trial. The cases on the subject are all over the proverbial ballpark, so I found the following language from Judge Fair’s specially concurring opinion to the COA’s decision in Jordan v. Jordan, handed down December 11, 2012, affirming Judge McKenzie, to be quite helpful.
¶23. I write separately to address the award of attorney’s fees by a trial judge, a subject the Mississippi Supreme Court has discussed directly only twice in the last five years.
¶24. It is not disputed by judges and practitioners that the “best practice” in awarding fees is a ruling by the trial judge in which each of the factors set out in McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982), is specifically addressed.
¶25. Ronald argues that the lack of such a discussion should require mandatory reversal as is the case in other “factor determination” cases. See Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So. 3d 274, 280 (¶7) (Miss. 2009) (factor tests, as provided in Ferguson and Armstrong, must be considered on the record in every case); Powell v. Ayars, 792 So. 2d 240, 244 (¶8) (Miss. 2001) (holding failure of trial court to address each Albright factor in awarding custody was reversible error).
¶26. Not so, says the Mississippi Supreme Court. In West v. West, 88 So. 3d 735, 747 (¶57) (Miss. 2012), the supreme court upheld the chancellor’s award of attorney’s fees “because it was not manifestly wrong.” The court explained that “[a]lthough the trial judge did not include an analysis of the McKee factors in his judgment, his award was not unreasonable, so we affirm.” Id. at (¶58) (citation omitted).
¶27. The same standard was applied to a circuit court. In Collins v. Coppers, 59 So. 3d 582, 593 (¶35) (Miss. 2011), the court noted:
The trial judge began his discussion of the reasonableness of the defendants’ attorneys’ fees by noting that his analysis was to be guided by the McKee factors . . . . The judge noted that this litigation has been ongoing for over four years, requiring several hearings, and the pleadings are voluminous. After considering those factors, the court’s knowledge of what is charged for legal services in the area, and all other [McKee ] factors, the trial judge found that the amount of attorneys’ fees submitted by the defendants was reasonable.
¶28. While I would continue to recommend an on-the-record analysis of each McKee factor to support an award of attorney’s fees, the failure to do so has not been considered reversible error.
That’s about as good a practice guide on the subject as you will find anywhere.
Remember that, in a divorce case, you must establish inability to pay before the judge can reach the issue of reasonableness. Gray v. Gray, 745 So.2d 234, 239 (Miss. 1999). After you have laid that predicate, then the question becomes whether the chancellor had sufficient evidence to support his decision on attorney’s fees, whether or not all of the McKee factors are proven or addressed. A case illustrating these points is Tatum v. Tatum, decided December 11, 2012, by the COA.