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Florida Third DCA rules that trial court erred in not granting defendants' motion for order awarding entitlement to attorney's fees

On September 26, 2018, in Ruiz v. Policlinica Metrolpolitana, C.A., No. 3D171535, the Florida Third DCA reversed a trial court’s finding that the plaintiff was not liable for the defendants’ attorney’s fees under section and Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.442. Prior to trial, the plaintiff had rejected offers of judgment submitted by the defendants. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered a final judgment in favor of one of the defendants, but in favor of the plaintiff and a corporate co-plaintiff against the other two defendants. However, the trial court awarded all of the damages to the corporate co-plaintiff. The trial court determined that the prevailing defendant was not entitled to an award of fees because the plaintiff “was forced into this litigation against its will based on Court’s finding that was indispensable co-party,” “did not assert any claims separate or beyond those pleaded” by the corporate co-plaintiff, and did not ask for damages “in addition to or beyond” those sought by the corporate co-plaintiff. Under these circumstances, the trial court concluded that it was “not unreasonable” for the plaintiff to reject the defendant’s offer of judgment.

Regarding the fee motions by the other two defendants, the trial court concluded that they were not entitled to fees because they would have been required to pay damages to the plaintiff but for the presence in the lawsuit of the corporate co-plaintiff. The Third DCA concluded that the trial court’s rationale for denying the defendants’ entitlement to fees was not based on any factor set forth in F.S. 768.79 or recognized by previous case law. The Third DCA noted that the trial court had ruled in the alternative that even if the order rejecting an entitled to fees was erroneous, it would still find the amount of the fees should be zero. However, the Third DCA concluded that this determination was moot since the issue of the amount of the fees was not yet before the trial court, the order having been issued after a hearing regarding entitlement only. The Third DCA consequently remanded the case to the trial court with directions to enter an order awarding entitlement to fees to the defendants and to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the amount.