Attorney’s Fees for Contempt

April 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in Wilkinson v. Wilkinson, handed down February 26, 2019, includes a nifty summary of the law applicable to award of attorney’s fees for contempt. Here is what Chief Judge Barnes’s opinion said:

¶51. The chancellor found the attorney’s fees incurred by Stephanie were reasonable, and billed at a reasonable rate given the time involved to prosecute the contempt allegations. The chancellor found the rate of $225 per hour customary, and her total fees incurred were $18,498.27. Stephanie’s counsel proffered that twenty-percent of his overall fees were related to contempt, which the chancellor accepted as proper.

¶52. The law on attorney’s fees for contempt is as follows:

“When a party is held in contempt for violating a valid judgment of the court, attorney’s fees should be awarded to the party that has been forced to seek the court’s enforcement of its own judgment. Fees awarded on this basis, though, should not exceed the expense incurred as a result of the contemptuous conduct.” That is, fees incurred litigating other matters—such as custody modification or child support—are not recoverable based on the contempt.

Heisinger v. Riley, 243 So. 3d 248, 259 (¶45) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (citations omitted). “[I]n contempt actions, attorney’s fees are awarded ‘to make the plaintiff whole.’” Bounds v. Bounds, 935 So. 2d 407, 412 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Mabus, 910 So. 2d at 490 22 (¶13)). The Mississippi Supreme Court established several factors to determine the proper amount of attorney’s fees to award in domestic cases in McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982). However, “the establishment of the McKee factors [is] not necessary” to recover attorney’s fees for willful contempt of a lawful court order. Lewis v. Pagel, 172 So. 3d 162, 178 (¶40) (Miss. 2015) (quoting Mixon v. Mixon, 724 So. 2d 956, 964 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)).

¶53. Here, the chancellor found a McKee factor analysis was unnecessary to award attorney’s fees because some of Stephanie’s contempt claims were successful. Accordingly, the court award Stephanie approximately twenty-percent of $18,498.27, or $3,700 in attorney’s fees for Rod’s contempt of child support and visitation. Because both parties were found in contempt for derogatory remarks, the court declined to award attorney’s fees to either party on that issue based upon the clean-hands doctrine.

¶54. Rod argues that the chancellor erred as a matter of law in stating one who successfully prosecutes a contempt action “is entitled to attorney’s fees without a showing of need” instead of “eligible.” (Emphasis added). We do not interpret the chancellor’s remarks to mean it is a mandatory finding but that the court is authorized to award fees under circumstances such as this.

¶55. Additionally, because Stephanie was also found in contempt on the derogatory remarks, Rod argues she cannot receive any attorney’s fees for contempt because of the unclean-hands doctrine. This doctrine “prevents a complaining party from obtaining equitable relief in court when he is guilty of willful misconduct in the transaction at issue.” Vincent v. Rickman, 167 So. 3d 245, 249 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (quoting Bailey v. Bailey, 724 So. 2d 335, 337 (¶6) (Miss. 1998)). However, we are not persuaded by this argument. The court did not award attorney’s fees to either party because both were found in contempt on this issue. This was the only issue for which Stephanie was found in contempt; however, Rod was found in contempt on two others. We find no error with the chancellor’s award.

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