Part 1: Contractual Attorney’s Fees
Virtually without fail, one of the first things our clients ask is whether they’ll be able to recover attorney’s fees from the other side. This is a fair question because it seems wrong to have pay an attorney when the other side has acted improperly or has caused the dispute. While not necessarily intuitive, the default rule, with exceptions, is that each side is responsible for their own attorney’s fees. We’re going to discuss some of the statutes and cases contrary to the default rule–these laws allow the winner of a lawsuit to recover reasonable attorney’s fees.
The most clear cut situation in which the winning party can recover attorney’s fees is when parties have signed a contract that provides for the recovery of attorney’s fees. For example, a typical provision in a contract might say that “the prevailing party is entitled to attorney’s fees incurred to enforce or collect monies due under the contract.” In these situations, a trial court doesn’t have the authority to alter such an arrangement unless it is prohibited by statute, and the winning party is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees as a matter of law.
Contractual attorney’s fees were discussed by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Summit At Scarborough Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Williams, A17A1289 (decided November, 16, 2017). In that case, the trial court’s decision to deny a homeowner’s association attorney’s fees related to unpaid association dues was reversed because the association documents, which are considered a contract, provided for the collection of attorney’s fees. Thus, in cases where a contract provides for attorney’s fees, the trial court must award attorney’s fees based upon evidence of the reasonable value of the professional services provided by the attorney.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when there’s no contractual provision for attorney’s fees, but the opposing party has acted in bad faith.