Harlan and Julie Miller were divorced in Palm Beach County, Florida pursuant to a Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage which adopted and incorporated their Marital Settlement Agreement. That agreement contained a fairly standard provision which holds that in any action to enforce the terms of the Final Judgment; the prevailing party shall be entitled to an award of reasonable attorneyâ€™s fees and costs.
Following the entry of their Final Judgment, Ms. Miller filed a petition to modify the timesharing provisions of the original agreement. Mr. Miller responded by filing his own counter-petition in which he sought additional time with the children and a downward modification of his child support obligation. Ultimately the Trial Court sided with the Former Husband by reducing his monthly child support payments.
Following the Courtâ€™s ruling, the Former Husband claimed attorneyâ€™s fees on the basis that he was the prevailing party. The Former Wife objected to these fees but the Court decided to award them over her objection. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed that decision and determined that the Trial Court did not have the authority to award fees based upon the prevailing party fee clause in the Marital Settlement Agreement. It held that a plain reading of the prevailing party fee clause unequivocally limited itself to motions to enforce (whereas the Former Husband had filed a petition to modify).
The first lesson of this entry is to read your agreement…because somewhere down the line the courts probably will too. If the agreement says you get fees on an enforcement action thatâ€™s what you get (nothing more and nothing less).
However, the real lesson of this entry is that you should always factor economic principals into your litigation decisions. This is exemplified in this case where the Former Husbandâ€™s fees topped 1.1 MILLION DOLLARS. Keep in mind; this was simply a petition to reduce child support. 1.1 MILLION DOLLARS almost certainly would have paid his entire child support obligation many times over.
As a result, the Former Husband may have won the battle but he most assuredly lost the war.
Litigation is a foolâ€™s mission unless a successful result will justify the costs, the risk and the personal toll by providing verifiable, and tangible, relief at the end of the day. In most cases, this means you have to do a cost/benefit analysis at the outset of the litigation and periodically throughout the process as the facts and circumstances change. Failure to do so will result in everybody losing (except of course the attorneyâ€™s).