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Florida Construction Law News

17JUL 2013

Contractor Successfully Defends Fee Award – Offers of Judgment: How to oppose prevailing party fees pursuant to §768.79 and Rule 1.442(c)(3)

by Sherry Schwartz

Florida law provides a conduit to obtain prevailing party fees where there is no other statutory or contractual basis to seek them.  This tool is generally referred to and recognized as an “Offer of Judgment” and/or “Proposal for Settlement”, as codified in Florida Statute §768.79 and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442(c)(3).  Both Plaintiffs and Defendants utilize these provisions to secure fee awards, the result of which can often exceed the underlying value of the case.

Given the implications in obtaining a fee award, Florida Courts have required extreme strict adherence to the black letter of §768.79 and Rule 1.442(c)(3).  Recently, on April 17, 2013, the Second District Court of Appeal followed the long standing premise that every “t” must be  crossed when seeking to enforce fee awards. Specifically, in Cobb v. Durando[1], the appellate Court overturned the lower court’s order granting prevailing party fees to two plaintiffs that failed to apportion their respective offers of judgment as required by Rule 1.442; the rule requires that a demand made by multiple parties serving a joint proposal “….shall state the amount and terms attributable to each party.” [2] A discussion of the case and the Court’s rationale is as follows:

Plaintiffs, a husband and wife, brought suit against their roofing contractor for breach of contract relating to work performed on a home they owned as tenants by the entirety.  During the course of the lawsuit, Plaintiffs jointly and timely served an offer of judgment on the contractor, and the contractor timely rejected same.  Upon prevailing on their underlying claim, Plaintiffs sought fees pursuant to their offer of judgment, and the trial court entered an order granting the requested relief.

The contractor appealed on the basis that the dual Plaintiffs, husband and wife, failed to apportion the offer of judgment in violation of the requirements codified in Rule 1.442(c)(3).  Plaintiffs defended the appeal in claiming that their mutual claim arose of out their ownership of their home that they held as tenants by the entirety, and hence, the offer was not required to be apportioned.

The Second District Court of Appeals agreed with the contractor and reversed the award.  The Court’s reasoning in reversing the order was two-fold: First, the Court disagreed that Plaintiffs’ claim directly arose out of the ownership of their home.  Conversely, the claim was for breach of contract, and accordingly, the fact that they owned the home as tenants by the entirety was not a relevant consideration.  Second, even if the claim did directly arise out of the ownership of the home, the Court applied strict construction to the interpretation of Rule 1.442: “…the rule requiring apportionment of proposals for settlement made by multiple plaintiffs does not recognize an exception for joint proposals made by tenants by the entireties.”[3]

The above decision represents a long standing trend of strict adherence to the fine letter of the law governing offers of judgments and/or proposals for settlement.  When defending an award, it is important to dissect every aspect of the offer that was served to determine whether any oversight can give rise to striking the claim.  On the other hand, perhaps the more important lesson is to ensure stringent compliance with the rules when situated as the party seeking to enforce the award.  In sum, although successfully opposing a fee award may be a victory, having your own award overturned can be costly.

[1] Cobb v. Durando, 111 So.2d 277 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2013)

[2] See Rule 1.442(c)(3), Fla.R.Civ.P: “(3) A proposal may be made by or to any party or parties and by or to any combination of parties properly identified in the proposal. A joint proposal shall state the amount and terms attributable to each party.”

[3] See Cobb, Id. at 278; citing Feldkamp v. Long Bay Partners, LLC., No.2:09-cv-253-FtM-29SPC, 2012 WL 3941773, at *2 (M.D.Fla. Sept. 10, 2012(affirming that a husband and wife should not necessarily be considered a single party when interpreting the rules governing offers of judgment).

Posted By Sherry Schwartz