4th DCA: When can a probate judge assess the winning side's attorney's fees against a litigant for bad faith, wrongdoing or frivolousness?
Levin v. Levin, --- So.3d ----, 2011 WL 3477032 (Fla. 4th DCA Aug 10, 2011)
In both F.S. § 733.106(4) and F.S. § 733.6175(2), a probate judge is given the express statutory authority to determine from whose share of the estate attorneys fees incurred in wrongful, frivolous or bad faith litigation will be paid. This type of sanction against wrong doing is akin to a F.S. § 57.105 motion for fees, a comparison I previously wrote about here.
My experience has been that judges usually don't pull the trigger on this sort of sanction until things get really, really bad. By then, there's no doubt the wrongdoer is acting way out of bounds, and the court simply enters an order assessing the winning side's attorneys' fees against the losing side. What's wrong with this picture is that busy trial-court judges may be tempted to NOT include detailed findings of fact in their fee orders. Trial lawyers need to guard against this omission if they want to ensure their hard-fought-for fee orders stand up on appeal. The 3d DCA recently ruled that an attorney's fee order without supporting detailed findings is per se reversible error [click here].
In the linked-to opinion above the trial court's fee order was reversed NOT because the sanction wasn't warranted, but simply because the order failed to contain the requisite findings of bad faith, wrongdoing or frivolousness needed to make it stick on appeal.
In this probate case, appellant appeals a judgment assessing attorney's fees against her share of the estate as well as an order taxing costs against her. The trial court did not make the requisite finding of any bad faith, wrongdoing, or frivolousness before awarding fees against appellant's share of the estate. See Geary v. Butzel Long, P.C., 13 So.3d 149 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009); In re Estate of Lane, 562 So.2d 352 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990). Accordingly, we reverse and remand for the trial court to determine, either from the record or after an evidentiary hearing, whether appellant engaged in any bad faith, wrongdoing, or frivolousness in the pursuit of her claim.