Donkersloot v. Donkersloot, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 4647415 (Fla. 2d DCA Oct 22, 2008)

Civil Procedure Rule 1.525 governs the mechanics of attorney’s fee motions in general commercial litigation.  Here’s what the rule says:

Any party seeking a judgment taxing costs, attorneys’ fees, or both shall serve a motion no later than 30 days after filing of the judgment, including a judgment of dismissal, or the service of a notice of voluntary dismissal.

There’s been confusion for some time as to how exactly this general rule should apply (if at all) within the unique context of a contested probate or trust proceeding. In an effort to address this problem a subcommittee of the Florida Bar’s Probate & Trust Litigation Committee composed of  Angela Adams, Laura Sundberg and Eric Virgil has been looking into what sort of legislative fixes could be adopted to provide clarity on the issue. Regardless of what comes of their efforts, the subcommittee’s latest written report is an excellent analysis of the rule as it applies (or should apply) in trust proceedings, and a great resource for any trusts-and-estates litigator confronted with a Rule 1.525 issue in real life [click here for a copy].

In light of this background the linked-to opinion is especially timely in that the 2d DCA seems to sanction application of Rule 1.525 in a contested trust proceeding.  According to the subcommittee’s report I previously mentioned, this would be the first time a Florida appellate court addresses the application of Rule 1.525 within the context of a trust proceeding. So you may want to remember this case for future reference.

Anyway, in this case the 2d DCA reversed a $195,000 attorneys fee judgment entered against two co-trustees because the fee motion had only sought fees against one of the co-trustees.  Because Rule 1.525 requires the filing of a fee motion as a predicate to a judgment for fees, this was reversible error.  Here’s how the 2d DCA explained its ruling:

Prior to the motion hearing, counsel for Mr. Donkersloot and Johannes Donkersloot stipulated that neither Mr. Donkersloot nor his counsel needed to be present. Mr. Donkersloot’s counsel attended the hearing briefly, alerted the trial court to the stipulation, and, with leave of court, left the hearing. As the hearing progressed, Johannes Donkersloot, in response to trial court questioning, opined that the trial court “in equity” could award fees and costs against Mr. Donkersloot. Several months later, the trial court entered the amended final judgment awarding almost $195,000 in attorney’s fees, costs, and interest against Ms. Hall and Mr. Donkersloot, jointly and severally. On rehearing, the trial court rejected Mr. Donkersloot’s argument that the fees could not be imposed absent a proper motion. The trial court concluded that the award was warranted against Mr. Donkersloot as part of the “action in equity.”

Once a party pleads entitlement to attorney’s fees, proof of the fees may be presented after final judgment upon motion made within a reasonable time. Stockman v. Downs, 573 So.2d 835, 838 (Fla.1991). However, a trial court may not award relief that has not been requested nor tried by consent. Conidaris v. Cresswood Servs., Inc., 779 So.2d 518, 519 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000) (holding that trial court was without authority to order owners to pay where equitable remedy was neither sought nor tried by consent).

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.525 dictates that a party seeking an award of attorney’s fees or costs must serve a motion requesting them within thirty days after entry of the judgment. Undisputedly, Johannes Donkersloot filed a timely motion. His motion did not seek fees from Mr. Donkersloot, nor was the motion served on him. Equally clear is the fact that, by stipulation, neither Mr. Donkersloot nor his counsel needed to be present at the hearing on attorney’s fees and costs; there was no trial by consent. Nor was the fee award an action that the trial court could make “in equity.” Equity does not breathe into a rule 1.525 motion unrequested relief. See generally Gulf Landings Ass’n, Inc. v. Hershberger, 845 So.2d 344, 346 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003) (holding that rule 1.525 is a bright-line rule and eschewing equitable exceptions). Accordingly, we reverse the award of attorney’s fees and costs as to Mr. Donkersloot.