Do we Really Need an Attorney’s Fee Expert?
In 2002, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a decision in Island Hoppers, Ltd. v. Keith, 820 So. 2d 967 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) discussing whether or not expert testimony should be required to support an award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party. The decision questioned the necessity and wisdom of the longstanding judicially-created requirement.
Justice Polen, who authored the opinion in Island Hoppers, recognized that an award of attorneys’ fees must be supported by competent substantial evidence and Florida courts have required testimony by the attorney performing the services, together with testimony by an expert fees witness as to the time and value of those services. The expert in that case spent a scant three hours in preparation of his opinion in this wrongful death case and is accused of lacking a sufficient factual predicate to form an opinion. Although Justice Polen and the court allowed the testimony, claiming the testimony went to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility, the opinion questions whether the longstanding rule requiring the corroborative testimony of an expert fees witness is always the best or most judicious practice.
The opinion recognizes that expert witnesses are presented to assist with guidance to the trier of fact and fails to see what “guidance” if any a fees expert provides to judges who see various levels of skill and experience in the courtroom on a regular basis. The opinion does recognize the expert may provide some assistance to the court in terms of a multiplier determination in the market, but distinguished the more fundamental issues of determining appropriate hours expended and rates charged and states the trial judge has greater insight and understanding regarding what is reasonable. The Island Hoppers decision prompted a Florida Bar Journal article, authored by Robert J. Hauser, Raymond E. Kramer III and Patricia A. Leonard, of Beasley & Hauser, P.A., in January 2003 regarding the same topic, (Vol. 77, No. 1, page 38) essentially agreeing the requirement should be revisited and perhaps eliminated. In virtually every case decided by the Florida Supreme Court, both before and subsequent to the Island Hoppers decision, the Court has found, or at least commented upon, the requirement for an expert to testify regarding the reasonableness of the time and amount of attorney’s fees being sought, together with a multiplier determination in the relevant market area, especially where there was a fee-shifting provision involved.
In Roshkind v. Machiela, decided in 2010, the Fourth District Court of appeal again addressed the long-standing requirement of independent expert witness testimony to support a claim for attorney’s fees. The Court recognized generally “where a party seeks to have the opposing party in a lawsuit pay for attorney’s fees incurred . . . independent expert testimony is required” and “case law throughout this state has adhered to the requirement of an independent expert witness to establish the reasonableness of fees, regardless of whether a first or third party is responsible for payment.” Although the opinion recognizes Island Hoppers and the previously questioned judicially-created requirement of independent expert testimony to establish the reasonableness of attorney’s fees, it ruled the judicially-created requirement “remains etched in our case law.” The Fourth District certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court regarding whether or not an expert witness is required to testify to establish attorney’s fees, seeking a final determination of the issue. The Florida Supreme Court initially accepted jurisdiction but later issued an opinion “upon further consideration, we have determined to deny review and discharge jurisdiction” thereby denying a review and ruling on the issue.
In 2007, In re Amendments to Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, The Florida Bar Civil Procedure Rules Committee recommended adding Rule 1.526 to The Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. The proposed rule was entitled “Expert Opinion Testimony on Costs and Attorneys’ Fees” and included “[e]xpert opinion is not required to support or oppose a claim or an award of costs, attorneys’ fees, or both, unless by prior order of the court.” Essentially, the proposed rule would leave it to the trial judge to determine whether or not he or she would require “guidance” in the form of an expert’s opinion regarding the determination of attorneys’ fees. In rejecting the proposed rule, the Florida Supreme Court opined “that the issue of whether expert opinion testimony is required in this context is not one that is appropriately addressed in a rule of procedure” and declined to adopt the proposed rule.
From a review of the foregoing, although at least one District Court of Appeal has questioned the judicially-created requirement for and independent attorneys’ fee expert to testify in a fee determination hearing, it is clear the Florida Supreme Court consistently has supported and recognized the longstanding requirement and has further refused to adopt a rule of procedure that would allow the trial court to determine the need for expert testimony. In order to support an award of attorney’s fees, the attorney for the party seeking the fees, whether first or third party obligation for payment is present, is required to retain the services of an expert to offer testimony regarding the reasonableness of the hours expended and amount being sought in recovery in order to prevail.
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