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Leveling attorney fee awards

Published (4/29/2011)
By Hank Long
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A judicial rule currently used in civil lawsuits to award attorney fees to the prevailing party often puts a monetary burden on defendants. That’s the contention made by proponents of a bill that would impose a set of judicial guidelines related to the awarding of attorney fees in civil litigation.

Sponsored by Rep. Pat Mazorol (R-Bloomington), HF747 would implement two provisions to a statute regarding attorney fee awards in civil lawsuits. The first provides that when making the award a judge must take into consideration the reasonableness of the attorney fees sought in relation to the amount of damages awarded to the prevailing party. The second would provide a limit on attorney fees awarded in certain cases in which an offer of judgment is made but rejected by the prevailing party.

The House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee approved the bill 10-5 April 26 and referred it the House Civil Law Committee. Its companion, SF429, sponsored by Sen. Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Critics testified in opposition to a provision that would require a party who rejects an offer of judgment to submit a disclosure of attorney fees.

“(The provision which) requires you to disclose attorney-client information that is prior to the resolution of the case, we think that is unfair,” said Joel Carlson, a St. Paul attorney representing the Minnesota Association for Justice. “We think that is an intrusion into the court’s process and into the requirement of lawyers that they keep their client’s information confidential.”

Carlson said the bill is unnecessary because the Minnesota Supreme Court has already adopted a standard for reviewing reasonable attorney fees that includes amount of time expended on a case, a reasonable hourly rate, the outcome obtained and the nature and complexity of a case.

The bill stems from a recently adopted judicial rule that provides if a reasonable offer is refused prior to a civil trial, it has no effect on attorney fees that might be awarded to the prevailing party, said Tom Marshall, a Minneapolis attorney.

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