No Attorney’s Fees for You After All

August 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

Nat Alford and his wife Linda consented to a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences, leaving it up to the chancellor to adjudicate several issues, including whether Linda should be awarded attorney’s and expert-witness fees. Linda testified that she had been “struggling” to make monthly payments against the more than $24,000 billed by her attorney.

The chancellor ordered Nat to pay $5,000 toward Linda’s attorney’s fees, and $6,000 toward expert witness fees. Nat appealed, and one issue he raised was that the award was erroneous.

The COA reversed and rendered in Alford v. Alford, decided July 23, 2019. Judge Jack Wilson wrote for the majority:

¶31. “An award of attorney’s fees is appropriate in a divorce case where the requesting party establishes an inability to pay.” Gray v. Gray, 745 So. 2d 234, 239 (¶26) (Miss. 1999). “The party seeking attorney’s fees is charged with the burden of proving inability to pay.” Riley v. Riley, 846 So. 2d 282, 287 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003) (citing Jones v. Starr, 586 So. 2d 788, 792 (Miss. 1991)). “It is well settled in Mississippi that if a party is financially able to pay an attorney, an award of attorney’s fees is not appropriate. Furthermore, if the record is insufficient to demonstrate the wife’s inability to pay the attorney’s fees, then an award of the fees is an abuse of discretion.” Gray, 745 So. 2d at 239 (¶26) (citations omitted).

¶32. At trial, Linda offered a list of invoice amounts prepared by her attorney that showed that he had billed her a total of $24,572.94, which included the trial. Linda also requested expert witness fees (for Paris) in the amount of $6,000. Linda and her attorney both testified that she had been paying $1,000 per month in attorney’s fees, although neither of them could say how much she had paid in total. Linda also testified that she had been paying $500 per month to Paris’s firm, although she did not state how much she had paid or how much was left to pay. Linda testified that she had been able to make her monthly payments to her attorney and expert, although she said that she had “been struggling to” do so. Linda’s attorney testified regarding his time and fees and Linda’s ability to pay. On cross examination, he was asked whether the equitable distribution of the marital assets would provide Linda with sufficient “financial resources to pay [her fees].” In response, he stated, “I would certainly hope that the [c]ourt awards [Linda] what [she] requested, which is 50 percent of the marital assets. If that occurs, then she certainly would have the money to pay me at that time. I would agree with that.”

¶33. Following the trial, the chancellor found that Linda had the ability to pay some but not all of her attorney’s fees. The chancellor then ordered Nat to pay her $5,000 for attorney’s fees and $6,000 for expert witness fees.

¶34. We conclude that the award of attorney’s fees and expert witness fees was an abuse of discretion because “the record is insufficient to demonstrate [Linda’s] inability to pay.” Gray, 745 So. 2d at 239 (¶26). Linda testified that she had been able to pay her attorney’s fees and expert witness fees in monthly installments of $1,000 and $500, respectively, and she failed to show how much she had already paid or what she still owed. In addition, Linda was awarded bank accounts with a combined balance of approximately $17,000, a Merrill Lynch account with a balance of $134,115.06, and retirement accounts with a combined balance in excess of $375,000. Linda received nearly half of the marital assets, which her attorney agreed would be sufficient to allow her to pay her attorney’s fees. There is nothing in the record to show that Linda would have been required to liquidate any significant part of her savings to pay her attorney or her expert. Indeed, as stated, the record does not even show what Linda owed at the time of trial. On these facts, Linda failed to meet her burden of establishing an inability to pay her fees. See, e.g., Dauenhauer v. Dauenhauer, 271 So. 3d 589, 601 (¶51) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (holding that award of attorney’s fees was an abuse of discretion where the spouse had already paid part of his fees in installments and had sufficient assets to pay the balance). Accordingly, the award of attorney’s fees is reversed and rendered.

” … [S]he failed to show how much she had already paid or what she still owed.” So how could one expect the chancellor to make an accurate ruling? I will reiterate what I have said here many times: if you expect to get your client an award of attorney’s fees you have to put some time and thought into what it will take to prove entitlement to that award. Close will not get the cigar. Slapdash won’t even come close.

The chancellor clearly concluded that Linda should have help with some of her attorney’s and expert fees. What the chancellor was not given to support her conclusion, however, was: (1) the amounts Linda had paid; (2) the remaining balances; (3) more detail about the financial strain the fees had imposed on her; and (4) what financial impact it would have on her equitable distribution to have it reduced by attorney’s fees.

I also thought it was interesting that Linda’s attorney was allowed to testify, apparently without objection, to Linda’s ability to pay. That, to me, is a fact issue in the case, and attorneys are not allowed by ethics to be fact witnesses except as to what they are owed in attorney’s fees. I have stopped attorneys in situations like that and directed them to limit their testimony to how much is owed, what services were rendered, what has been paid, and the employment contract. Maybe that’s just me.

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