ATTORNEY’S FEES: THE ANSWER TO A PRAYER

VSDH Vaquero Venture, Ltd. v. Gross
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-16-01041-CV (August 9, 2017)
Justices Lang, Myers (Opinion, linked here), and Stoddart
Many a prayer at the end of a petition, counterclaim, or even answer includes a generic request for attorney’s fees along with the ubiquitous plea for “all other relief to which [the party] is entitled.” Turns out, that can be sufficient to support a fee award.

The Grosses asserted claims for fraud and breach of contract against VSDH, Hickok, and Shaw based on a sales contract for a new home. The contract provided that “the prevailing party in any legal proceeding related to this contract is entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees.” The jury found against the Grosses on all issues at trial, with the parties having stipulated the court would handle the issue of attorney’s fees separately. The trial court entered a take-nothing judgment in favor of VSDH, Hickok, and Shaw, but awarded them no attorney’s fees. So, they appealed, arguing they were “prevailing parties” under the contract and therefore entitled to recover their fees. The Dallas Court of Appeals left the judgment intact as to Hickok and Shaw, finding they were not parties to the contract. But it reversed for VSDH.

The Grosses argued on appeal that the appellants’ live pleadings at trial did not support an award of attorney’s fees because the only mention of fees was in the prayers for relief, which contained no reference to the contract or its “prevailing party” provision. The prayers simply asked that the Grosses “take nothing by their claims, and that [the party] be discharged with costs of court, attorney’s fees, and such other and further relief to which [the party] may be entitled [both in law and in equity].” But that was enough. The appeals court held that a “general prayer for relief (i.e., ‘such other and further relief at law or in equity’) might not support an award of attorney’s fees,” but a specific request for fees—even one that does not identify the basis—can suffice. That was particularly true here, the Court noted, where the Grosses themselves had pleaded for an award of fees related to the contract, and all parties had stipulated (albeit somewhat ambiguously) to having “the attorney’s fees issue” decided by the trial court rather than the jury. Under these circumstances, the Court said, “the Grosses cannot argue there was no fair notice to them that appellants sought attorney’s fees.”

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