Man with a cart full of money to pay for the family law appeal

Appeals 101: How do I Pay my Family Law Appeal Attorney’s Fees?

Family law cases are oftentimes stressful, lengthy, and expensive ordeals that can extend through trial court into the appellate courts.  But the legislature recognizes that such cases are unique, and thus it provides an avenue for seeking some relief from the cost of attorney’s fees for these cases. As part of our continuing Appeals 101 series, here’s the scoop on getting your ex to pay for your family law appeal attorney’s fees — whether you are appealing an equitable distribution, a child custody order, or any other issue related to your marriage dissolution or custody dispute.

Man with a cart full of money to pay for the family law appeal

It can feel like you need a cart full of money to pay for your family law appeal. You may be able to get your ex to cover those costs.

The basis for attorney’s fees in family law appeals

Section 61.16, Florida Statutes, allows a party to ask a court to force the other side to “pay a reasonable amount for attorney’s fees” in some family law cases.  The purpose of the statute “is to ensure that both parties will have a similar ability to obtain competent legal counsel.”  Rosen v. Rosen, 696 So. 2d 697, 699 (Fla. 1997).  “[I]t is not necessary that one spouse be completely unable to pay attorney’s fees for the trial court to require the other spouse to pay those fees.”  Id.

Section 61.16 also applies on appeal.  The statute states “In determining whether to make attorney’s fees and costs awards at the appellate level, the court shall primarily consider the relative financial resources of the parties, unless an appellate party’s cause is deemed to be frivolous.”  However, the court may also consider what are known as the Rosen factors (for the case from whence they came):  “the scope and history of the litigation; the duration of the litigation; the merits of the respective positions; whether litigation is brought or maintained primarily to harass (or whether a defense is raised mainly to frustrate or stall); and the existence and course of prior or pending litigation.”  Rosen v. Rosen, 696 So. 2d 697, 700 (Fla. 1997).

Can I seek attorney’s fees before the appeal is over, or do I have to wait?

Another way family law fees are different is that, rather than having no choice but to wait until the end of the appeal to seek fees, there is a limited avenue for a party to seek fee assistance during the appeal.  Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.600(c)(1) says the trial court has continuing jurisdiction while an appeal is ongoing to enter orders awarding “temporary attorneys’ fees and costs reasonably necessary to prosecute or defend an appeal, or other awards necessary to protect the welfare and rights of any party pending appeal.”  This means that a party can ask the trial court for assistance from the other side to pay for fees as they are being incurred for the appeal.  In practice this procedure can sometimes be problematic, especially when the trial court does not have sufficient time to rule on such a request while the appeal is pending.  See Kasm v. Lynnel, 975 So. 2d 560 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008).

No matter the family law case, or whether a party has sought temporary fees with the trial court, the party that seeks an award of fees for the appeal should timely file a motion for fees with the appellate court under Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.400(b).  Failure to do so may result in waiver of any ability to claim those fees later.  See Rados v. Rados, 791 So. 2d 1130, 1131-32 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) (“A trial court cannot award appellate attorney’s fees unless the appellate court has authorized such an award.”).  A motion under rule 9.400(b) must be filed no later than the time for service of the reply brief.

How long will I have to wait for an award of attorney’s fees?

Don’t be surprised if the appellate court decides not to ultimately decide your entitlement to fees, instead sending your motion to the trial court.  Unlike trial courts, appellate courts are simply do not have the capability to take evidence.  Evidence may be necessary to determine the parties’ relative financial positions and the other factors discussed above.  Consequently, the appellate court often relies on the trial court to take such evidence and make those determinations for it.  Rados v. Rados, 791 So. 2d 1130 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) (identifying the many ways that one appellate court handles such motions).

Most importantly, once an appeal is over, the trial court can only consider appellate fees with permission from the appellate court, usually based on a ruling on a timely-filed 9.400(b) motion.  Even if you would otherwise deserve your fees on appeal under the statute or the Rosen factors, the trial court does not have the power to award them for your appellate efforts if the appellate court does not order it to do so. If you are in, or suspect you will be, in a family law appeal, contact us and we can help ensure that any rights you have to fees are properly raised and preserved.

 

Second DCA holds you can get “fees for fees”—if it is in your contract

Ordinarily, where an attorneys’ fee award is available, a party is entitled to fees for litigating the entitlement to those fees, but not the amount.  The Second District Court of Appeal has now recognized that this rule is not absolute, and the language of an attorney fee provision in a contract can provide for a more extensive award.

In Trial Practices, Inc. v. Hahn Loeser & Parkes, LLP, 2D13-6051 & 2D14-86 (Fla. 2d DCA Apr. 12, 2017), Trial Practices (“TPI”) sued its former client for legal consulting services, claiming entitlement to a percentage of the client’s settlement of a third-party lawsuit.  The client prevailed against TPI, and the judgment was affirmed on appeal.

The client then sought an award of attorneys’ fees pursuant to the Consulting Agreement between himself and TPI.  The Consulting Agreement stated:

[the] prevailing party in any action arising from or relating to this agreement will be entitled to recover all expenses of any nature incurred in any way in connection with the matter, whether incurred before litigation, during litigation, in an appeal, . . . or in connection with enforcement of a judgment, including, but not limited to, attorneys’ and experts’ fees.

The trial court entered an award of fees that included a significant amount “attributed to [the client’s] attorney’s litigation of the issue of the amount of attorneys’ fees and costs.”  On appeal, the Second District held that the language of the “Consulting Agreement” was sufficiently broad to encompass this “fees for fees” award.

The Second District held that this case, in which fees were sought pursuant to contract, is distinguished from cases in which fees were sought pursuant to statute—where “fees for fees” is generally unavailable.  The Court also recognized that Florida law allows parties to “freely contract on the issue of attorney[s’] fees,” and that courts are not permitted to rewrite contracts to relieve parties of their obligations.

The Second District also held that attorneys who testified as fact witnesses in the original trial were entitled to receive reasonable compensation for their assistance, and that the “Consulting Agreement” was sufficiently broad to allow an award of overhead expenses as part of a cost award.  It did reverse, in part, for the trial court to itemize a bulk cost award in the judgment, and determine which costs were taxable and which costs were not taxable; and to change the date from which prejudgment was calculated.

In sum, if a party is seeking an award of attorneys’ fees pursuant to a broad contractual provision, the fee award may encompass not only time spent in litigating entitlement to fees, but also to litigating the amount.

Attorneys Fees and Costs after Voluntary Dismissal Under 9.350(b)

A colleague recently asked me whether a notice of voluntary dismissal of an appeal should deal with or mention attorneys fees and costs. In Florida’s intermediate appellate courts the appellant can voluntarily dismiss the appeal by filing a notice of voluntary dismissal with the court, pursuant to Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.350(b). (Notice the contrast to trial court practice, where it is service of a notice of voluntary dismissal, not filing, that ends the case, per Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.420). But what is the effect of that dismissal on a claim for attorney’s fees, and is the appellee entitled to costs?

Entitlement to Fees and Costs

The case law on this issue is sparse, but makes it clear that such a dismissal likely renders to the appellee the prevailing party for purposes of the fee and costs analysis. The Third District has stated that, while an appellee may technically be entitled to fees and costs, the court will not grant a fee award before any briefing has occurred because appellee’s fees would be de minimus. See Sanchez v. State Farm Florida Ins. Co., 997 So. 2d 1209 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008) [.pdf]. The First District more recently disagreed with this de minimus stance (and with Judge Judge Shepherd’s dissent in Sanchez), holding that there is no de minimis exception when determining entitlement to a fee award. First Real Estate, LLC v. Grant, 88 So. 3d 1073 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012) [.pdf].

And while the Second District Court of Appeal hasn’t ruled on this issue in the context of voluntary dismissal, it has signaled that it would like to follow the de minimus approach of the Third District, but feels constrained by the statute to allow at least offer of settlement attorneys fees when an appeal has been dismissed prior to briefing. Braxton v. Grabowski, No. 2D12-2708, ___ So.3d ___, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1157 (Fla. 2d DCA May 24, 2013) [.pdf]. In Braxton, the appeal was dismissed for lack of prosecution rather than voluntarily dismissed (or at least, the voluntary dismissal crossed in the mail with the dismissal order, and because at the appellate level voluntary dismissal is accomplished by filing not service, the lack of prosecution order was the operative order). Still, the court concluded on rehearing that it had no choice but to grant the appellee’s motion for attorney’s fees under Section 768.79, Florida Statutes.

Practical Effect on Costs

Even if the appellee is entitled to costs, are there any costs to collect? Not likely. Taxable appellate costs are very narrowly defined as:

(1) fees for filing and service of process;
(2) charges for preparation of the record;
(3) bond premiums; and
(4) other costs permitted by law.

None of these narrow class of costs were likely paid by the Appellee. So while there may be entitlement, there’s most likely nothing to tax.

Practical Effect on Fees

If a voluntary dismissal is filed, best to serve that attorney’s fee motion quickly. A motion for appellate attorneys fees is generally due pursuant to Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.400 “not later than the time for service of the reply brief” and where no reply brief will ever become due, it is unclear what the deadline would be. Entitlement to fees is not automatic — the Appellee must still show that there is a legal basis, either in statute or contract, for the award.