Virginia Supreme Court Issues Important Attorney’s Fee Opinion
The Virginia Supreme Court issued an important attorney’s fee opinion recently. The opinion, in Lambert v. Sea Oats Condominium Association, Inc., — S.E.2d. —-, 2017 WL 1378202 (Va., 2017) should be of interest to Virginia practitioners, as it lays to rest several hobgoblin-style arguments normally made by those resisting a fee petition in Virginia state courts.
As regular readers know, I maintain more than a passing interest in this topic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that much of my law practice concerns fee-shifting statutes, and I have served as an expert witness in a number of cases on this topic.
Plaintiff Martha Lambert filed a civil action in a Virginia General District Court (for non-Virginia lawyers, GDCs have jurisdiction over misdemeanor criminal cases and civil cases up to $25,000). Her claim alleged, in a nutshell, that her condominium association failed to reimburse her for a repair to the common area of her condominium in the amount of $500. She sought judgment in the amount of $500 plus an award of attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to Va. Code § 55-79.3(A). Under that code section a prevailing party “shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees” in an action to enforce compliance with condominium instruments.
Lambert lost at the GDC, and appealed to the Circuit Court, where she won. In addition to the $500 in damages awarded, she sought attorney’s fees and costs in the amount of $9568.50. Citing the small nature of her award – and nothing else – the court awarded her exactly $375 in attorney’s fees and costs.
THE SUPREME COURT OF VIRGINIA REVERSES THE CIRCUIT COURT
Justice Mims, writing for SCOVA held that while a Circuit Court can consider the amount of damages awarded, that that is only one factor in an overall analysis of the reasonable nature of the fee. More important is his holding that Circuit Courts cannot limit an award of attorney’s fees based on a small award at trial if a plaintiff receives everything they demanded in the ad damnum.
This case is important for another reason as well. It appears to put to rest the issue of whether a party must include evidence of its attorney’s fees in a fee-shifting case as part of its case in chief. Where a party seeks to recover its legal fees pursuant to a statutory or contractual fee-shifting provision, it is appropriate to delay the issue of an attorney’s fee award until after the merits of the case have been decided. The Court referenced Virginia Rule 3:25(D), which allows the parties to request a Court Order establishing a procedure for adjudicating an attorney’s fees claim after the case in chief has concluded.
As Virginia practitioners know, our Supreme Court is not big on issuing guidance to lawyers and litigants, so when it does we should all listen and listen close, and hopefully Judges throughout the Commonwealth will do the same.