Proof of Attorney’s Fees in a Mixed Action

July 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

Mark Campbell filed a combined contempt and modification action against his ex-wife, Misty. She counterclaimed. Following a hearing the chancellor granted relief and awarded Misty $4,141.97 in attorney’s fees. Mark appealed several issues, the attorney’s fee award among them.

In Campbell v. Campbell, decided June 19, 2018, the COA reversed and remanded the attorney’s fee award because there was insubstantial proof of what portion of the fees was attributable to defending the modification, and what was incurred in pursuing the contempt. Judge Tindell wrote the opinion:

¶17. Mark next challenges the chancellor’s award of $4,141.97 in attorney’s fees to Misty. After finding Mark’s allegations of abuse and neglect against Misty lacked evidentiary support, the chancellor ordered Mark to pay the fees Misty incurred defending against the unsubstantiated claims. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-23 (Rev. 2013). Mark asserts on appeal, however, that Misty’s attorney never separated the fees incurred defending against the abuse and neglect allegations from the fees incurred litigating other matters. Since the chancellor only ordered Mark to pay the attorney’s fees related to the litigation of the abuse and neglect allegations, Mark argues the chancellor abused his discretion by failing to
separate those fees from the “fees otherwise incurred in Misty’s defense of Mark’s request for decreased child support and pursuit of her own request for increased child support.”

¶18. The decision to award attorney’s fees is largely entrusted to a chancellor’s sound discretion. Evans v. Evans, 75 So. 3d 1083, 1089 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982)). After finding Mark’s claims of abuse and neglect to be unsubstantiated, the chancellor was well within his authority to award Misty the attorney’s fees she incurred defending against the allegations. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-23. However, the chancellor never made a finding that Misty lacked the ability to pay her attorney’s fees incurred litigating other matters. See Ewing v. Ewing, 203 So. 3d 707, 716 (¶33) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (“Generally, unless the party requesting attorney’s fees can establish [an] inability to pay, such fees should not be awarded.” (quoting Bredemeier v. Jackson, 689 So. 2d 770, 778 (Miss. 1997))). As a result, we find the chancellor abused his discretion by failing to separate the attorney’s fees Misty incurred defending against Mark’s allegations of abuse and neglect from those fees incurred litigating other matters. We therefore reverse this portion of the chancellor’s judgment and remand the issue so the chancellor may determine which attorney’s fees Misty incurred defending against Mark’s unsubstantiated allegations.

Here’s the deal: the standard that the judge is to apply in awarding attorney’s fees for a modification, or for a divorce for that matter, is different than the standard for an award of attorney’s fees for contempt. That is why you must put on proof of the amount of time devoted on the one hand to the modification issues, and on the other to the contempt issues. For modification, you will have to show your client’s inability to pay. For contempt, you merely have to make your prima facie case that the other party was not in compliance with the court order when the suit to enforce was filed.

Caveat: The reasonableness of the attorney’s fee award is reviewed in relationship to the McKee factors. A post dealing with this is at this link. You should always include proof of the McKee factors, even in contempt cases, because you want to make your attorney’s fee awards as bullets-proof as possible.

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