Attorneys’ Fees Must Be Reasonable, Despite What Contract Says

Many contracts provide that in the event of litigation arising out of a breach, the prevailing party will be entitled to recover “reasonable” attorneys’ fees from the losing party. Some attorneys, however, hoping to obviate the need for a mini-trial regarding the reasonableness of the fees, draft contracts setting the attorneys’ fees as a fixed percentage of the underlying obligation (e.g., 15% of the total amount due). But what happens when the underlying obligation is so large that applying the fixed percentage stated in the contract would result in awarding the prevailing party far more than it actually incurred in legal fees?

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema recently faced that question and ruled that the percentage-based attorneys-fee provision was unenforceable as a matter of law. Considering a request for attorneys’ fees and costs after the conclusion of a commercial case, she rejected a finance company’s contention that a flat 15 percent of the amount it recovered in the case should be awarded to it as attorneys’ fees, even though the loan document in question specified that fees not less than 15 percent of the amount in question should be awarded.

Automotive Finance Corp. (AFC), based in Indiana, provided financing for several automobile dealer showrooms in Virginia. Later, it filed suit against the dealers and against three companies that guaranteed the debt. After a trial, Judge Brinkema awarded AFC $3,156,149 in damages. AFC then applied to the court for attorneys’ fees in the amount of $473,422.35Money v2.jpg (precisely 15 percent of the recovery) which amount exceeded the fees and costs it actually incurred. While finding AFC’s argument “appealing in its simplicity,” Judge Brinkema said the problem with it is that it “flies in the face of the applicable case law.” The fees awarded in any piece of litigation, according to both Virginia and Indiana law, must be reasonable.

Courts in the Eastern District of Virginia examine twelve factors when evaluating the reasonableness of a claim for reimbursement of attorneys fees: (1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorneys’ opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attorneys’ expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation and ability of the attorney; (10) the undesirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys’ fees awards in similar cases.

Applying these factors, as well as Indiana law as required by the contract, the court found that 15 percent was unsupportable. She wrote, “To allow a party to recover more in an attorneys’ fees award than it actually incurred in legal expenses would confer an unreasonable windfall on that party and would be fundamentally at odds with the basic principle that the party requesting fees bears the burden of proving that such fees are reasonable.”

Instead, Judge Brinkema ruled, AFC is only entitled to “recoup the fees which it can prove that it actually and reasonably incurred.” After making some deductions for duplicative time entries and deferring to the bankruptcy court on the reasonableness of fees incurred in that forum, Judge Brinkema awarded AFC the sum of $217,414.91 in fees and costs, less than half the amount requested.

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