Johnson v. Amritt, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 4861745 (Fla. 3d DCA Dec 01, 2010)

In contested trust and estate proceedings the fiduciary in charge of the estate (i.e., the trustee, personal representative or guardian) hires the lawyer, but the estate’s beneficiaries paythose fees (the fiduciary’s attorney’s fees are paid from the estate).

Because the party paying the fiduciary’s legal fees did not participate in negotiating the fee arrangement, there’s a built in tension every time a court is asked to rule on their reasonableness. Recognizing this tension, Florida’s Trust Code (F.S. 736.1007) and Probate Code (F.S. 733.6171) both contain specific guidelines to aid trial judges in setting attorney fees.

One of the primary social values promoted by these statutes is assuring the public that judges are making fee decisions in an objective and uniform manner. Here’s how the Florida Supreme Court articulated this crucially important point in Fla. Patient’s Comp. Fund v. Rowe, 472 So.2d 1145 (Fla.1985):

[G]reat concern has been focused on a perceived lack of objectivity and uniformity in court-determined reasonable attorney fees. Some time ago, this Court recognized the impact of attorneys’ fees on the credibility of the court system and the legal profession when we stated:

There is but little analogy between the elements that control the determination of a lawyer’s fee and those which determine the compensation of skilled craftsmen in other fields. Lawyers are officers of the court. The court is an instrument of society for the administration of justice. Justice should be administered economically, efficiently, and expeditiously. The attorney’s fee is, therefore, a very important factor in the administration of justice, and if it is not determined with proper relation to that fact it results in a species of social malpractice that undermines the confidence of the public in the bench and bar. It does more than that. It brings the court into disrepute and destroys its power to perform adequately the function of its creation.

Baruch v. Giblin, 122 Fla. 59, 63, 164 So. 831, 833 (1935).

Although the amount of an attorney fee award must be determined on the facts of each case, we believe that it is incumbent upon this Court to articulate specific guidelines to aid trial judges in the setting of attorney fees.

The only way a trial judge can assure parties involved in a contested trust or estate proceeding that the amount of attorney’s fees they’re paying was determined in an objective and uniform manner is to enter orders containing detailed findings as to [1] the hourly rate, [2] the number of hours reasonably expended, and [3] the appropriateness of reduction or enhancement factors. If a fee order doesn’t contain these findings it is per se erroneous and subject to reversal.

In other words, even if the trial judge’s fee order reaches the right conclusion, if it doesn’t explain in detail how the judge arrived at his conclusion (thereby giving all interested parties confidence in the ruling’s fairness), the order is per se wrong. That’s what happened in the linked-to case above, and why the trial judge’s fee order was reversed:

We review the trial court’s order “approving and authorizing the payment of attorney’s fees” to the former emergency temporary guardian’s counsel. After a thorough review of the record, we hold that the trial court did not make the requisite findings for an award of attorney’s fees. See Fla. Patient’s Comp. Fund v. Rowe, 472 So.2d 1145, 1151-52 (Fla.1985). “An order awarding attorneys’ fees is ‘fundamentally erroneous on its face’ when the trial court fails ‘to make specific findings as to the hourly rate, the number of hours reasonably expended, and the appropriateness of reduction or enhancement factors as required by [Rowe, 472 So.2d at 1151].” Parton v. Palomino Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, Inc., 928 So.2d 449, 453 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (quoting Baratta v. Valley Oak Homeowners’ Ass’n at the Vineyards, Inc., 891 So.2d 1063, 1065 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004)). We reverse the order on appeal and remand with instructions for the trial court to make the requisite findings set forth in Rowe and its progeny and state the basis for awarding any such attorney’s fees.