Fee Shifting – Is ‘Prevailing Party’ Language Required?

I see this often: plaintiff sues a defendant for breach of contract.  The defendant has more financial resources than the plaintiff and the contract doesn’t have an attorneys’ fees provision.  Meaning, each side is responsible for its own fees. 

After several months, the plaintiff gets financially (and mentally) worn down by the richer defendant – who by now has filed numerous counterclaims and scheduled a flurry of witness depositions. 

The plaintiff says “uncle” and the parties enter the dreaded Mutual Walk-Away.  The plaintiff gets nothing, is annoyed at her lawyer (whom she has been paying hourly) and loses confidence in the litigation system. 

Once again, the deeper-pocketed defendant gets its way and the plaintiff, whose claim had merit, never gets her day in court.

One way to protect against this  common occurrence is to insert an attorneys’ fees or “fee-shifting” provision in the contract. 

Fee language can at least make a defendant think twice about trying to break a plaintiff’s will through protracted litigation.  It also encourages the plaintiff to not give up so easily when there is a potential fees and costs recovery at the end of the lawsuit. 

In Bank of America v. Oberman, Tivoli & Pickert, Inc., 2014 WL 293662,  an accounting firm sued a commercial lender for breach of a commercial loan agreement.  The agreement contained fee-shifting language applicable to the “collection, enforcement, administration, or protection” of the loan agreement. 

After plaintiff’s Illinois suit was dismissed for the fourth time and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal, the lender filed a separate action to recover its defense fees.

The accounting firm moved to dismiss the lender’s claim on the basis that the loan documents  didn’t specify that the prevailing party could recover attorneys’ fees.  The Northern District denied the motion.

Reasoning:

The general rule in Illinois is that the lawsuit winner isn’t entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees unless there is a contractual provision that says so;

– Allowing a losing party to collect attorneys’ fees from the successful party violates Illinois public policy;

– A fee provision doesn’t have to contain the magic words “prevailing party” to be enforceable.

*4-5.

The Northern District found the fee-shifting language applied to the lender’s defense of the accounting firm’s various lawsuits.  The loan contract specifically said that fees incurred in the “protection” of the loan agreement were recoverable. 

The Court applied the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of protection (“to defend from danger or injury”) in ruling that defending a lawsuit equated to protecting the lender’s contract rights.  

Afterword:

To avoid the negative aftershocks of the above walk-away scenario, I always stress to clients that their contracts should contain attorneys’ fees language.  I also caution them that when signing another party’s contract, to be alert for attorneys’ fees language slanted in the other side’s favor. 

This case illustrates that while “prevailing party” terminology isn’t required to enforce a fee-shifting clause; the clearer and broader the clause, the better. 

 

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.