‘Winning’ Failure To Mitigate Defense Doesn’t Confer ‘Prevailing Party’ Status On Restaurant Tenant In Lease Dispute Att’y Fee Hearing Dispute

Alecta v. BAB Operations, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 132916-U, a case I spotlighted earlier for its analysis of lease assignment liability rules, also provides a valuable discussion of contractual attorneys’ fees provisions basics. (See case’s bullet-points on lease assignment issues here: http://paulporvaznik.com/bagel-shop-successor-tenant-hit-for-rent-damages-and-attorneys-fees-in-commercial-lease-case-il-first-dist/8491)

The court affirmed a $70k-plus fee award for the landlord even though its damages were reduced by $20k for failing to mitigate damages. Code Section 9-213.1 (of the Illinois eviction or forcible statute) obligates a suing lessor to mitigate  its damages.  This means the landlord can’t sit back while rent payments become due and pile up without making measurable efforts to re-rent the premises.

On the attorneys’ fees issue, the law in Illinois is that the unsuccessful party usually has to pay his own fees unless there is a contract provision regarding attorneys’ fees or an applicable statute allows for fees.  In addition, a clearly worded fee-shifting clause should be enforced as written in favor of the prevailing party.

Q1: Who Is A Prevailing Party?

A: The one who is successful on a significant issue and achieves some benefit in bringing suit.  But, a litigant doesn’t have to succeed on all claims to be considered a prevailing party.

Where a case involves multiple claims and both parties win and lose on different claims, it may be that neither side is the prevailing party.

Q2: What Does Fee Petitioner Have To Show?

A:  The party petitioning for attorneys’ fees has the burden of presenting sufficient evidence to the trial court and a fee petition must specify (i) services performed, (ii) who performed them, (iii) time expended on the services, and (iv) the hourly rate charged by counsel;

Other fees factors for the trial court to consider include (a) skill and standing of attorneys, (b) nature of the case, (c) complexity of the issues, (d) importance of the case, and (e) degree of responsibility required to prosecute or defend a case.

A court considering a fee petition can also rely on its own experience.

¶¶ 72-74.

Here, the defendant lease assignee only prevailed on part of its failure to mitigate defense and didn’t file or win any counterclaims.  An affirmative defense differs from a counterclaim in that the former seeks to defeat a plaintiff’s claim while the latter (counterclaim) seeks affirmative relief from the plaintiff.  See ,e.g. Nadhir v. Salomon, 2011 IL App (1st) 110851, ¶¶34 – 38 (A “set-off” is a counterclaim; not an affirmative defense since the set-off defendant/counter-plaintiff seeks affirmative monetary relief against the plaintiff/counter-defendant.)

The court held that a $20,000 reduction off an over $80k  money damage verdict isn’t enough of a damages cut to make the defendant a prevailing party on the mitigation issue.  As a result, the trial court was within its discretion in awarding 80% of the plaintiff’s claimed fees.  Since the trial court found that the plaintiff prevailed on approximately 80% of its case (based on the partial reduction for failure to mitigate), the court’s fee award of over $70K was upheld.

Afterwords:

The case gives a good refresher on fee-shifting factors an Illinois court considers as well as further refinement of who is/who isn’t a prevailing party in litigation.

An interesting question is what would have happened if the tenant filed a counterclaim (as opposed to affirmative defense) and was able to obtain a $20K damages reduction on a set-off theory.  I don’t know if it would have made a difference here since $20K off a $80K money award likely isn’t big enough to merit “prevailing party” status.