Awarding of attorneys' fees sent back to trial court for reconsideration

By Carrie Salls | Jan 3, 2018

ST. LOUIS – In a ruling overturning a Circuit Court of St. Charles County order, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District determined that “a contingent-fee contract does not impose an automatic ceiling on an award of attorneys’ fees,” according to the appeals court’s Dec. 12 opinion.

The appeals court said in its opinion, which was written by Judge Kurt S. Odenwald, that Clay Selleck filed an appeal to contest the amount of attorneys’ fees granted to him as a result of a Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA) violation lawsuit he filed against his former employer, Keith M. Evans Insurance Inc.

A jury awarded Selleck $10,000 of a requested $160,000 in his lawsuit after ruling in his favor on an unpaid commission claim, according to the opinion. The jury rejected Selleck’s wrongful discharge claim.

The appeals court opinion, however, said “in calculating Selleck’s reasonable attorneys’ fees, the trial court expressly considered the contingent-fee agreement executed by Selleck and his attorneys before awarding Selleck $3,333.33.”

Judge Kurt S. Odenwald   Missouri courts

The amount of attorneys’ fees awarded was significantly less than the $221,292 in fees requested by Selleck, who, according to the appeals court’s opinion, said “this amount reflected the 788 hours billed on the case by attorneys who charged $280 and $450 an hour, respectively.”

Keith M. Evans Insurance objected to Selleck’s fee calculations, the appeals court said, with the company arguing that many of the hours billed were used for the attorneys’ work on counts of the lawsuit other than the unpaid commission charge.

Although the lower court did agree to award attorneys’ fees to Selleck, it said the requested fee amount was “excessive,” according to the appeals court opinion, and that “Selleck presented credible evidence that he had entered into a contingent-fee arrangement.”

The appeals court said it agreed with Selleck’s argument on appeal that, “while the presence of a pre-existing contingent-fee agreement may aid a trial court in determining the reasonableness of a statutory award of fees,” it does not limit the amount of the fees awarded.

“The judgment of the trial court appears to treat the contingent-fee agreement as a mandatory cap on the amount of attorneys’ fees that may be awarded under the MMPA instead of utilizing the contingent-fee agreement as one factor to determine the reasonableness of an attorneys’ fee award,” the appeals court said in its ruling.

The appeals court remanded the case back to the trial court “to determine the reasonableness of Selleck’s attorneys’ fees.”

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