Can we make them pay my attorney fees? This is one of the most common questions we receive from our clients who find themselves involved in lawsuits. Unfortunately, the answer in most cases is no. Tennessee follows the “American Rule” which means that each party in a lawsuit pays their own attorney fees, no matter who wins. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Two of the most common exceptions are as follows:
(1) Certain state and federal statutes allow the prevailing party to recover attorney fees. Examples: certain consumer protection, civil rights, and employment claims, etc.
(2) A contract provision where the parties to a contract have agreed that the prevailing party in a dispute will be entitled to recover attorney fees. Examples: leases, commercial contracts, collections, home sale contracts, etc.
Your attorney should examine the allegations in the lawsuit and any contracts that may apply to determine whether it is possible for you to recover your attorney fees. If you are a business person and you don’t have attorney fee provisions in your contracts, consider adding them. Here are some answers to additional questions we are frequently asked about attorney fees:
“This lawsuit is frivolous! Can we make them pay for all the money I have to spend dealing with this?” The standard for “frivolous” is pretty high. Even lawsuits that are eventually determined to have no merit are not necessarily frivolous. Very few cases are. Unless your case meets one of the exceptions, you probably can’t recover your attorney fees, even if you win.
“My contract provides for attorney fees. What are the chances I actually recover them?” If you are the prevailing party and you obtain a judgment, that judgment should include an award of what the judge deems a reasonable attorney fee. Your award may or may not equal what you actually paid your attorney. If your case is resolved through settlement, the attorney fee provision is often used as a negotiation point to increase the overall amount of money you recover.
“If the judge awards me an attorney fee of less than what I actually paid my lawyer, does my lawyer have to give my money back?” It depends on what your fee agreement is with your lawyer, but in most cases, the answer is probably no. Your fee agreement with your lawyer is independent of any judgment you may recover from the opposing party.
If you need help drafting an appropriate attorney fee provision for your contracts, or if you have a question about recovery of attorney fees in a lawsuit, please call us at 901-372-5003.