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Langham: Proving Reasonable Fees in Florida

By David Langham

Friday, October 6, 2017 | 609 | 0 | min read

An interesting, but brief, decision came from the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal in July. The court addressed attorney fees in Clancy Co. v. Smith. This is not a workers' compensation case, but it is instructive nonetheless. 

Judge David Langham

Judge David Langham

In this circuit court case, the trial judge was asked to assess attorney's fees in a discovery dispute. Unfortunately, discovery disputes sometimes occur in litigation. In this instance, a party found itself frustrated with discovery and filed a motion for protective order, and had to respond to a motion to compel discovery. The details of that dispute were not discussed by the appellate court. 

However, this combination of motions is not uncommon. One party is seeking particular documents or testimony. Not getting the responses that it wants, or believes it is entitled to, that party moves to compel production. They are essentially asking the judge to order a response or a more complete response.

The party from which the documents or testimony has been sought feels aggrieved or pressured, and files a protective order, essentially asking the judge to make the opposing party stop seeking the discovery. 

An important point from Smith is that motions are the appropriate manner to seek relief. That is true in the circuit court setting, and in Florida workers' compensation. When a party wants the judge to take action, the party asks by filing a motion. Rule 60Q6.115(1) says "Any request for an order or for other relief shall be by motion and shall have a title describing the relief requested."

This is a very broad statement ("any request") and it is definite ("shall be by motion"). When a party is in doubt as to what to do next in litigation, when it feels that a decision from the judge is needed, it seems a fair bet that a motion may be a good step to consider.

In Smith, however, the appellate issue is attorney fees. The trial judge concluded that Clancy and Co. "were entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and costs" because it had to file the "motion for protective order" and defend the "motion to compel discovery." That decision of fee entitlement was affirmed by the appellate court.

To some, that in itself may be a lesson worth considering. When disputes over discovery escalate to the point that they require judicial intervention, the potential exists for attorney fee liability. 

In Smith, the circuit court awarded fees, and the appellate court found that decision appropriate. But the court reversed the circuit judge regarding the amount of fees. The court conclude that "it was error" to award attorney fees "without making findings concerning the reasonableness" of the fees.

The court said that there should have been findings (conclusions reached by the trial court) regarding the "reasonableness." The court held that "an order awarding fees without making specific findings about the hourly rate and the number of hours reasonably expended was fundamentally flawed."

The court reminded that fee awards must "be supported by evidence detailing the nature and extent of the services performed and by expert testimony regarding the reasonableness of the fee." To allow a trial judge to make such findings (to reach such conclusions), the party that seeks fees "should submit time sheets and detailed billing statements to establish the amount of work performed and the time to perform each task." It is this evidence that allows the trial judge to reach those conclusions as to reasonableness. 

What is the relevance of this decision to workers' compensation disputes? The analysis of fees in workers' compensation may be similar.

In 2016, the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal rendered a decision in Miles v. City of Edgewater Police Dept. Eight days later, the Florida Supreme Court rendered Castellanos v. Next Door Co. These decisions provided interpretation regarding attorney fees in Florida workers' compensation, and both included "reasonable." 

In Miles, the court concluded that an injured worker could "agree to pay her attorney with her own (or someone else's) funds, subject to a JCC's finding that the fee is reasonable."

In Castellanos, the court concluded that "a reasonable attorney's fee has always been the linchpin to the constitutionality of the workers' compensation law," and that the case be "remanded to the JCC for entry of a reasonable attorney fee."

In the context of fees, "reasonable" may be a polestar for Florida attorneys. And, as such, there may be guidance in Smith regarding methodology or facts that can be provided to a trial judge, upon which such conclusions of "reasonable" might be based.

David Langham is deputy chief judge of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. This column is reprinted, with his permission, from his Florida Workers' Comp Adjudication blog.

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