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Order that law firm pay attorney fees reversed

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed today an order awarding attorneys fees based on the actions of an Indianapolis law firm in a dispute involving the dissolution of another firm, finding the record didn't provide any insight into why the trial court granted the award.

In James W. Smyth v. Judy G. Hester and the Estate of Timothy P. Brazill; Plews Shadley Racher & Braun, as intervenor, No. 29A02-0803-CV-237, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun appealed the trial court order awarding attorney fees to Judy Hester and the Estate of Timothy P. Brazill. Hester, Brazill, and James Smyth practiced law together under the partnership Smyth Brazill Hester until Smyth advised the other two partners their partnership was over. A month later, Brazill died and Smyth and Hester were unable to agree as to how to end the partnership.

Smyth retained Plews as counsel to represent him in his complaint against Hester and Brazill's estate seeking damages, an accounting, and the appointment of receiver over SBH based upon alleged breach of fiduciary duties by Hester and Brazill. The estate also alleged breach of fiduciary duty and conversion against Smyth and requested an accounting and declaratory judgment. Hester counterclaimed against Smyth alleging breach of fiduciary duty, self-dealing, and conversion, and also requested for accounting.

The estate and Hester filed a motion for attorney fees and costs against Plews and Smyth because they believed Smyth and the firm were litigating a frivolous, unreasonable, and groundless claim in bad faith. The trial court found their actions in litigating the matters illustrated "their frivolous, unreasonable, and bad faith conduct in this case."

The Court of Appeals agreed in general with Plews' argument on appeal that the trial court order contained no finding of fact to support the judgment for attorney fees. None of the findings of fact contain a specific reference to a problematic litigation action and none of the conclusions of law reflect the legal authority and standard for an attorney fee award, wrote Judge Carr Darden.

"We acknowledge that the record may include some questionable litigation tactics that might support the trial court's exercise of its discretion to award attorney fees," the judge wrote. "However, our review in that regard is impaired by the fact that the order appealed does not provide us with any insight as to the trial court's reason for the award of attorney fees in this case, i.e., what the trial court found to be frivolous, unreasonable, and bad faith conduct. Accordingly, we remand to the trial court for further consideration and explanation of its judgment in that regard."

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  1. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  2. If the end result is to simply record the spoke word, then perhaps some day digital recording may eventually be the status quo. However, it is a shallow view to believe the professional court reporter's function is to simply report the spoken word and nothing else. There are many aspects to being a professional court reporter, and many aspects involved in producing a professional and accurate transcript. A properly trained professional steno court reporter has achieved a skill set in a field where the average dropout rate in court reporting schools across the nation is 80% due to the difficulty of mastering the necessary skills. To name just a few "extras" that a court reporter with proper training brings into a courtroom or a deposition suite; an understanding of legal procedure, technology specific to the legal profession, and an understanding of what is being said by the attorneys and litigants (which makes a huge difference in the quality of the transcript). As to contracting, or anti-contracting the argument is simple. The court reporter as governed by our ethical standards is to be the independent, unbiased individual in a deposition or courtroom setting. When one has entered into a contract with any party, insurance carrier, etc., then that reporter is no longer unbiased. I have been a court reporter for over 30 years and I echo Mr. Richardson's remarks that I too am here to serve.

  3. A competitive bid process is ethical and appropriate especially when dealing with government agencies and large corporations, but an ethical line is crossed when court reporters in Pittsburgh start charging exorbitant fees on opposing counsel. This fee shifting isn't just financially biased, it undermines the entire justice system, giving advantages to those that can afford litigation the most. It makes no sense.

  4. "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

  5. I have a appeals hearing for the renewal of my LPN licenses and I need an attorney, the ones I have spoke to so far want the money up front and I cant afford that. I was wondering if you could help me find one that takes payments or even a pro bono one. I live in Indiana just north of Indianapolis.

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