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Divided Supreme Court rules on attorney fees case

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The Indiana Supreme Court has affirmed the award of attorney fees to an Indiana town, although two justices disagreed and would have reversed the trial court.

In R.L. Turner Corp. v. Town of Brownsburg, No. 32S01-1109-PL-573, the trial court had dismissed R.L. Turner Corp.’s claims of tortious interference with a contractual relationship, quantum meruit, and breach of duty to a third-party beneficiary after Brownsburg allegedly interfered with a settlement agreement between R.L. Turner and the Brownsburg Municipal Building Corp. concerning a construction project.

The trial court’s judgment provided for “costs to be assessed” against R.L. Turner but didn’t specifically mention attorney fees. Brownsburg later filed a petition seeking more than $27,000 in attorney fees and expenses, which the trial court granted.

Last year, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the trial court had the authority to award the fees and the record supported the finding that R.L. Turner’s claims were frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.

Turner asked the justices to take the case, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction to grant the attorney fees motion after the case had been dismissed. But the justices disagreed.

“Instead, we think of a court’s ruling as deciding the case such that any of its acts after judgment implicate not its jurisdiction, but rather court rules and judicial doctrines that safeguard the finality of judgments,” Chief Justice Randall Shepard wrote. “So, the question here is one of procedural error, not jurisdiction.”

Looking at the concept of awarding “costs” to the prevailing party, the justices held that means what it usually means – filing fees and witness fees, not the trial court’s action in denying or granting the town’s request for attorney fees.

Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s application of pre-1993 federal rules for petitions on attorney fees, the Indiana justices found that guidance instructive.

“A petition for fees does not disturb the merits of an earlier judgment or order, so it does not implicate Indiana Trial Rules 59(C) or 60(B),” Shepard wrote. “As such, none of those respective time limits govern a petition for attorneys’ fees.  Instead, trial courts must use their discretion to prevent unfairness to parties facing petitions for fees. A request for attorneys’ fees almost by definition is not ripe for consideration until after the main event reaches an end. Entertaining such petitions post-judgment is virtually the norm. To be sure, a request for fees is in some sense an equitable petition, and it might be that an extremely tardy request should fall on deaf ears due to lack of notice or staleness.”

The court also summarily affirmed the Court of Appeals’ review of the record that special findings weren’t made on this case.

Justices Robert Rucker and Brent Dickson joined in a separate opinion that concurred in part but dissented on the second aspect relating to the award’s defectiveness for want of special findings. The pair found that no hearing was held on the matter and the trial court didn’t indicate why it concluded that way, and so the two justices would have reversed the award on that point and remanded.

 

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