A Party that Obtains a Money Judgment is not Always the Prevailing Party

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In Harris v. Rojas (“Harris”), the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal (Los Angeles) held that the trial judge has discretion to decide the “victory” is pyrrhic and nobody won in ruling on a motion for attorney’s fees where the jury verdict is significantly less than the demand.

Harris involves a landlord tenant action that arose from a commercial lease agreement. Litigation continued for nearly three years and culminated in a seven-day jury trial. Plaintiff asked the jury for $200,000. The jury awarded Plaintiff $6,450 on his contract claim which was 3 percent of his request and which the court offset and reduced in the final judgment. For this, Plaintiff’s lawyers sought $296,744.68 in attorney’s fees. The trial court denied the fee request on the ground there was no prevailing party.

The Court of Appeal affirmed holding that for two reasons. First, the Plaintiff’s recovery was slight compared to his demand, and the skimpy record he provided gave no other basis for assessing his litigation objective. When a court rules that there is no prevailing party, the Court of Appeal reviews the order for an abuse of discretion. However, the Plaintiff failed to include trial transcripts, trial briefs and opening statements in the record on appeal, essentially blocking the Court of Appeal from any insight into Plaintiff’s litigation objectives.

Second, considering the entire action, Plaintiff was no winner at all. To support its reasoning, the Court of Appeal stated that trial courts are well positioned to evaluate what counts as a win. The court’s task is to compare the sum Plaintiff sought with the sum the jury awarded. On this comparison, the Court of Appeal defers to the trial judge’s commonsensical decision. Reaping merely five or six thousand dollars after spending three years pursuing $200,000 drastically falls short of the goal. A slight recovery more resembles a tie than a win. As such, the Court of Appeal held the trial court’s ruling that there was no prevailing party for purposes of the motion for attorney’s fees was well within its discretion.

Harris is yet another case to support arguments in opposing motions for attorney’s fees that not all jury verdicts awarding monetary damages will result in the Plaintiff being a prevailing party for purposes of seeking attorney’s fees and costs. Harris also highlights the importance of properly following appellate procedures and reminds of the value appellate counsel can add to ensure appellate procedures are properly followed. Haight has in-house Certified Appellate Specialist, Arezoo Jamshidi, to assist in all appellate matters.

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