Trial Courts Do Not Have To “Show Their Math” In Making Attorney Fees Awards In The Show Me State

Though generally, parties are responsible for paying their own attorney’s fees under “The American Rule,” the Missouri Human Rights Act contains a provision whereby a trial court may award “court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees” to a prevailing party. Courts are given wide discretion in determining who “prevails,” and what constitutes reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs in cases that arise under the MRHA.

A case in point, Chrissy Tate v Autozoners, LLC involved a claimant who brought forth three charges (harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge) under the MRHA against five different Defendants. After over two years of litigation, the claimant dismissed and/or abandoned all charges against four of the defendants, and dismissed two of the three charges against the remaining defendant, Autozoner’s LLC. At trial, the sole charge against Autozoner’s was for harassment. The claimant was awarded $10,000 in compensatory damages for the harassment charge after trial.

After the award, however, Tate’s attorneys submitted requests under the MRHA for $222,172.50 in attorneys’ fees and an additional $6,984.37 in costs. The documents supporting the request for fees and costs related to work attorneys had performed on all the charges, including the dismissed and/or abandoned charges.

Autozoner’s argued for a reduction in costs and attorney’s fees, claiming first that the claimant should not be awarded costs and fees on the dismissed/abandoned charges since she was not the prevailing party, and second, that the amount requested was exorbitant, duplicative and, as to some costs, not even recoverable by law. Autozoner’s argued that the total award should be less than $50,000.

After considering arguments and evidence, the trial court awarded attorneys’ fees of $126,381.69 and costs of $3,511.15, an amount for which neither party advocated.  The court did not include an analysis or itemization explaining how the court reached those numbers.

A previous ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District reversed a trial court’s attorneys’ fee award where the court’s award differed from the requests by the parties and did not contain any explanation for the amount. Williams v. Trans States Airlines, Inc., 281 S.W.3d 854, 865 (Mo. Ct. App. 2009). In that case, the trial court’s award was lower ($80,000) than the amount either party requested (the defendant requested that the court award approximately $97,000 and the plaintiff requested approximately $146,000).

Based on that previous ruling, Autozone appealed, contending that the trial court’s award was unreasonably high, and that the award was not explained by the trial court.

The Missouri Court of Appeals in the Southern District affirmed the trial court’s award, which it said was “within the calculations” of both parties. Despite clear rules that prohibit a court from making an “arbitrary” award, it appears that as long as the trial court’s attorney fees and costs award falls somewhere between the amounts requested by the parties, the court will not have to justify or explain its award, making the appeal process difficult. It thus appears that, in Missouri, the best opportunity for a cost reduction in attorneys’ fees and costs in cases brought under the MHRA will occur with a strong advocate at the trial stage.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, for sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.