No Problem That 40% Fee Award Paralleled Jury Decision That Prevailing Party Was 60% Negligent.
In Stone v. Mitchell, Case No. A132335 (1st Dist., Div. 4 Oct. 16, 2015) (unpublished), plaintiffs prevailed won a negligence claim but lost two other claims, with the jury finding plaintiffs were 60% responsible for injuries on the negligence claims—awarding damages of $32,560 net (based on the negligence attribution and $12,000 reduction for another defendant’s settlement). Plaintiffs then moved to recover $212,800 in attorney’s fees based on a sales contract with a fees clause. The lower court awarded $85,000, prompting an appeal by plaintiffs who argued the fee award was not enough.
The fee award did not change on appeal.
Success or failure is a lodestar consideration under California law. (PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler, 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095-1096 (2000).) The appellate court did not think reducing the fee award to reflect the jury 40% positive negligence apportionment to the prevailing party was an abuse of discretion under the circumstances, since the fee award was 40% of the fee request.
BLOG OBSERVATION—The reviewing court also has made an oblique “pass” on an issue which we believe will have to be decided at some point by the appellate courts, but has not drawn uniform treatments in published or unpublished decisions. At present, trial judges do not have to issue detailed findings or statements of decision in connection with fee proceedings in California state courts. However, despite not having to issue a statement of decision, what is the rule if a litigant asks for specific findings, creates a good record, and is denied that request? In our view, this issue has not been fully vetted by an appellate court, especially given that Stone observed “California courts have stated a disinclination to review the amount of an award when specific findings are not requested,” citing Taylor v. Nabors Drilling USA, LP, 222 Cal.App.4th 1228, 1250 (2014). Obviously, a fee litigant is in a conundrum—it cannot insist on a statement of decision, but is damned if it doesn’t ask for one. We would suggest that a statement of decision or at least proposed findings be submitted to a trial judge, because at some point the California state courts will have to decide what happens when specific findings are proffered, but not ruled on, when determining the real impact on review of fee rulings.