Attorney’s Fees in a Related Case

March 1, 2017 § 1 Comment

In the midst of their long-running property-line feud with the McDonalds, about which we have previously posted here and here, Kenneth and Carolyn Moore filed for bankruptcy, making it necessary for the McDonalds to file adversary proceedings in bankruptcy court. After the case returned to chancery from its bankruptcy detour, the case was heard on the merits and the chancellor ruled against the Moores, assessing them $13,336.55 in actual damages, $10,000 in punitive damages, expert expenses of $1,700, and attorney’s fees of more than $65,000. The attorney’s fee award included legal work by the McDonalds’ attorneys in the bankruptcy case.

The Moores appealed, contending that it was error for the chancellor to assess bankruptcy attorney’s fees against them in the chancery contempt proceeding. The COA affirmed in Moore v. McDonald, et al., handed down February 7, 2017. Judge Wilson wrote the opinion on the point:

¶4. On May 16, 2014, the McDonalds filed a motion for summary judgment supported by exhibits and affidavits. Eleven days later, the Moores filed for bankruptcy. As a result, all proceedings in the chancery court were stayed and the impending trial was cancelled. Counsel for the McDonalds entered an appearance in the bankruptcy case and filed an adversary complaint to preserve the McDonalds’ claim against the Moores. See 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6) (2012) (providing that a debt for “willful and malicious injury” to the person or property of another is not dischargeable in bankruptcy). The McDonalds’ counsel also attended the meeting of creditors and filed a motion for sanctions based on the Moores’ alleged misrepresentations in the bankruptcy case. In response to hearing notices in the McDonalds’ adversary proceeding, the Moores appeared before the bankruptcy court and asked that their bankruptcy petition be dismissed. The court granted their request, which permitted the chancery case to proceed.

¶5. The chancellor found “that the Moores intentionally stalled [the chancery] action by filing [a petition for] bankruptcy which was dismissed after considerable time and effort by [counsel for the McDonalds].” The chancellor therefore found that “attorney time and expenses expended . . . in the Moore bankruptcy case were properly incurred on behalf of the McDonalds and should be awarded as part of the fees and costs awarded in this case.” On appeal, the Moores do not challenge the chancellor’s factual basis for awarding attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with the bankruptcy case. The Moores’ only argument is that “[t]he Pearl River County Chancery Court was not the appropriate forum to request attorneys’ fees for work related to the bankruptcy.” They argue that approximately $3,975 in fees that the McDonalds incurred related to the bankruptcy proceeding could only be recovered in the bankruptcy court.

¶6. The Moores’ argument is without merit. The Moores do not dispute that the McDonalds were entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees, and they cite no authority for their argument that such fees are not recoverable simply because they were incurred in a related bankruptcy proceeding. Although not directly on point, our Supreme Court recently held that a state court can award fees incurred in federal court in connection with a motion to remand the case to state court. See O.D. v. Dillard, 177 So. 3d 175, 189 (¶44) (Miss. 2015). In addition, other courts have held that a state court may award attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with a related bankruptcy proceeding. See Chinese Yellow Pages Co. v. Chinese Overseas Mktg. Serv. Corp., 170 Cal. App. 4th 868, 882 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009); Gill Sav. Ass’n v. Chair King Inc., 797 S.W.2d 31, 32 (Tex. 1990). Accordingly, we hold that the chancellor did not err by awarding attorneys’ fees related to the bankruptcy case.

In the absence of other Mississippi authority on point, then, the law in Mississippi is as stated above until the MSSC rules otherwise. On the particular facts in this case, I can’t disagree. The judge ruled that the detour “intentionally stalled” the chancery proceeding, so its connection with and direct relation to the chancery case is pretty clear. Still, I would hope we can have some parameters on how closely connected and related that other litigation needs to be to justify awarding attorney’s fees in another case.

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