As the business lawyer Memphis TN trusts when it comes to contract negotiation and drafting, one piece of simple legal advice we frequently give our small business clients is to always include attorney fee provisions in your contracts and routine business forms. Why? Because if you don’t have such a provision and you end up in litigation, you’re on the hook for your own attorney fees and legal expenses even if the breach of contract, or the resulting litigation, isn’t your fault.
Tennessee Requirements for Attorney Fee Provisions
It has always been the case that a contractual provision allowing for the recovery of attorney fees must be specific. However, just last month, in Nyrstar Tennessee Mines-Strawberry Plains, LLC v. Claiborne Hauling, LLC, the Tennessee Court of Appeals went further to reinforce this principle by making clear that attorney fee provisions must specifically invoke the magic words “attorney fees.” The Court held that it is not enough simply to provide recovery of “costs,” “expenses” or even “legal expenses” – all of which the Court held was simply not specific enough to permit recovery of attorney’s fees.
In Nyrstar, the plaintiff won at trial on its breach of contract action against the defendant and the judge awarded the plaintiff $116,073.43 in damages. After winning the case, the plaintiff then sought attorney’s fees of $106,779.50 and expenses of $2,982.12 pursuant to the attorney fee provision in the applicable contract. The specific language of the contract in Nyrstar was as follows:
The Customer must pay Nyrstar all costs and expenses incurred by Nyrstar in connection with enforcing its rights against the Customer under an Agreement including legal expenses and other costs incurred in recovering monies owed by the Customer to Nyrstar.
The trial court awarded the plaintiff its expenses, but refused to award the plaintiff its attorney’s fees, despite the contract language providing for the recovery of “legal expenses.” The trial court stated:
[t]he plaintiff Nyrstar’s language does not use the term “fees.” It uses “expenses,” which has been found to be inadequate. Merely providing for the “recovery of ‘costs and expenses’” is insufficient to reach a contractual right to recover attorney’s fees.
(Emphasis added). The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld this decision. The Nyrstar case means that you should pull out your contracts and regular business forms, and then call us today to make sure that the language you are using in your attorney fee provisions is correct. After all, what is the point of having an attorney fee provision in your contracts and forms if it’s not going to hold up in court?
Your attorney fee provision MUST specifically provide for the recovery of “attorney’s fees,” and not merely “costs” or “expenses.”
Even if a provision provides for the recovery of “legal expenses” or “costs and expenses of any suit or proceeding,” the right to recover attorney’s fees is not created because the provision does not specifically implicate “fees” as part of the recovery.
If you’d like the small business lawyer Memphis TN trusts to review your small business contracts and routine business forms to make sure your language complies with the requirements in Tennessee for attorney fee provisions, call us today at (901) 372-5003.