Court overturns case evaluation sanctions of $700,000.00+ in attorney fees
We may be approaching the end of a dispute between two rich families over the sale of a summer home in Bay Harbor, with the Court of Appeals' decision that the winners could not collect fees and costs that totalled nearly a million dollars. Archie A. Van Elslander sued a number of parties, including the sellers of the 9,000 square foot home, after discovering what he claimed was undisclosed mold and water damage. He won a large verdict which was upset on appeal. The case was then re-tried on much narrower grounds dictated by the appellate court. On re-trial, limited to a single issue and theory, the buyer lost.
Since the buyer had previously rejected a case evaluation recommendation of slightly under $200,000.00 (and didn't improve on that number by ten percent), the sellers sought sanctions including $86,000.00 in taxable out-of-pocket costs and $589,000 in attorney fees incurred after rejection. The Plaintiff argued that the court included expenses not propertly taxable, that the fees were inflated or not incurred at all, and that in any event, sanctions were improper because the case evaluation rejection should be evaluated based upon the status of the case as it appeared at the time of the [successful] original trial.
The court rejected the latter perspective, but did overturn several of the costs awarded and some of the fees granted. It returned the case to the trial judge to hold a hearing on other disputed cost and fee issues, with direction to use the customary fee in the community as its guideline, rather than a more punitive, higher fee which prevailing parties may attempt to assert. The appellate court was clearly skeptical of many of the hour and rate claims made by the sanction-seeking party.