The American Rule Stands? Appellate Court Remands for Prevailing Party to Segregate Between Recoverable and Non-Recoverable Fees

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Another week, another fee-shifting case. This ones involves a 28-unit condo project in the Houston Heights neighborhood of Houston (see 2017 Yale Development, LLC v. Steadfast Funding, LLC, 2023 WL 3184028 (Tex. App. May 2, 2023)). The project failed after the developer defaulted on its loans and several contractors filed liens on the property. Litigation ensued.  The developer asserted numerous claims including fraud and breach of contract against the lenders and others, and the lenders countersued for fraud and breach of contract. The trial court rendered summary judgment against the developer on its claims and in favor of the lenders on their breach of contract counterclaim. The case proceeded to a trial on the issue of the lenders’ breach of contract damages.  The trial court awarded the lenders a total of $8.3 million, including $765,000 in attorneys’ fees, which were recoverable under a fee-shifting provision in the promissory note.

On appeal, the developer raised 33 issues. The appellate court rejected all but one: the appropriateness of the fee award. On that issue, the appellate court held that the lenders had failed to properly segregate their attorneys’ fees between recoverable and non-recoverable claims as required under Texas law. For example, while the lenders could be entitled to attorneys’ fees on their breach of contract claim, they would not be entitled to recover fees incurred in pursuit of fraud claims. The court therefore remanded the case to the trial court to allow the lenders to properly prove up their recoverable attorneys’ fees. As to what proof would be required on remand, the court cited the following cases as guidance: Tony Gullo Motors I, L.P. v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299, 311, 314 (Tex. 2006) (noting that standard for segregation of attorney’s fees “does not require more precise proof for attorney’s fees than for any other claims or expenses” and stating that attorney’s opinion that a certain percentage “of their drafting time would have been necessary even if there had been no fraud claim” would have sufficed); Hillegeist Fam. Enters., LLP v. Hillegeist, 2022 WL 3162367, at *5 (Tex. App. Aug. 9, 2022) (stating that when segregation is required, attorneys do not have to keep separate time records for each claim).

The Yale Development case serves as another useful lesson on the recoverability of attorneys’ fees. Understanding the requirements and limits to fee awards in a specific state can be important. In this case, early recognition of the requirement to segregate fees incurred on different claims may have allowed lenders the ability to more easily prove up their attorneys’ fees claims at trial and on remand. If you have any questions about this post or attorney fee awards generally, please do not hesitate to contact John Mark Goodman.