When are you Entitled to Attorney Fees Under the UPUAA?

Under the UPUAA, a successful civil plaintiff is entitled to recover double damages. In addition to the damages recovered, a successful plaintiff may also recover the costs of suit.

UPUAA Attorney FeesUnder the UPUAA, a successful civil plaintiff is entitled to recover double damages. In addition to the damages recovered, a successful plaintiff may also recover the costs of suit, including reasonable attorney fees. However, if a defendant prevails against a private party and the claim “is dismissed prior to trial or disposed of on summary judgment, or if it is determined at trial that there is no liability, the prevailing party shall recover from the party who brought the action or asserted the claim or counterclaim the amount of its reasonable expenses incurred because of the defense against the action, claim, or counterclaim, including a reasonable attorney’s fee.” Thus, any prevailing party in a civil UPUAA action is entitled not only to the costs of suit, but are also entitled to a reasonable attorney’s fee.

In Albright v. Attorneys Title Ins. Fund, the United States District Court for the District of Utah was faced with a motion for attorney’s fees made by a prevailing a defendant in a civil UPUAA case. Plaintiffs’ claim arose out of alleged racketeering conspiracy between the Florida Fund and Cohen Cox. Plaintiffs’ complaint contained eighteen different causes of action, including claims under RICO and the UPUAA. Defendants defended against Plaintiffs’ claims, and ultimately Plaintiffs’ entire case was dismissed on summary judgment.

Following the entry of summary judgment, defendants sought to recover attorneys’ fees and other expenses incurred in defending against the racketeering claims pursuant to the UPUAA. Defendants argued that while the federal RICO statute does not provide a means for a prevailing party to recover attorney fees, the court should still permit defendants to recover their entire attorney fees in this case under the UPUAA “because the state and federal racketeering claims were factually and legally related.” Plaintiffs responded by arguing that the court shouldn’t award any of the fees and costs requested by defendant because the federal RICO statute prevents an award to defendants in this case. According to plaintiffs, the federal statute only allows for recovery of attorneys’ fees by a prevailing plaintiff and not a defendant. Alternatively, plaintiffs argued that even if defendants were entitled to recover fees and expenses for prevailing on the UPUAA claims, the court should still deny their motions because defendants have failed to allocate between time and expenses spent on the UPUAA claims versus the other non-UPUAA claims.

The district court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ contentions, finding that “pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1605(8), Defendants are entitled to ‘recover from the party who brought the claim[s]’ their reasonable expenses and attorneys’ fees.” The court was not persuaded by the plaintiffs’ arguments that the federal RICO statute somehow precluded recovery of attorney fees by a defendant where a plaintiff asserted both state and federal racketeering claims. The district court wrote in its opinion that:

There is nothing on the face of the federal RICO statute that preempts state racketeering fee provisions. See 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c). And, although the federal statute expressly allows prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees, the statute is merely silent with regard to a prevailing defendant’s right to recover attorneys’ fees. Had Congress intended to preempt state law in this area, it certainly knew how, and would have done so explicitly. Moreover, as Defendants point out, courts that have been confronted with this very issue, including the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, have uniformly held that a defendant can recover fees and costs under a state racketeering statute even where the plaintiff asserted both state and federal racketeering claims.

After rejecting plaintiff’s arguments that defendants were not entitled to attorney fees, the court turned its attention to determining a reasonable attorneys’ fee under the circumstances of the case. However, this time the court accepted plaintiff’s arguments that defendants shouldn’t be entitled to recover their entire requested attorneys’ fees. As the court pointed out:

Having presided over this case for several years, and having a thorough knowledge of the manner in which this case was presented and ultimately resolved, the Court is of the opinion that it would be unreasonable to allow the Defendants to recover the overwhelming majority of their fees and expenses based on claims that played a somewhat minor role in the proceedings. However, the Court also recognizes that the Plaintiffs’ decision to include the state racketeering claims required the Defendants to conduct additional research, explore the different parameters of the state and federal statutes and address those differences in order to mount an appropriate defense.

As a result, defendants were precluded from recovering their entire fees. Even still the court concluded that defendants were still entitled to a reasonable fee under the UPUAA:

Accordingly, the Court is of the opinion that it is fair and equitable to award the Defendants twenty percent of the attorneys’ fees and expenses they have presented to the Court, which the Court has reviewed and has determined were reasonably incurred. The Court believes that awarding fees and expenses in this amount serves to honor the state statute, which provides for the recovery of fees and costs, while at the same time recognizing that the UPUAA claims in this case played a relatively minor role in comparison to the federal racketeering claims.

The court’s decision in Albright is significant for several reasons. First, the court’s decision gives teeth to the UPUAA’s provisions regarding attorney fees, allowing successful defendants to recover attorney fees the same as successful plaintiffs. Second, the court made clear that even if a plaintiff asserts federal RICO claims against a defendant, it makes no difference as to whether a successful defendant may recover attorney fees under the UPUAA. Finally, although the court ultimately awarded fees to the prevailing defendants, the court determined that defendants were not entitled to their entire fee request. Rather, defendants were only entitled to a reasonable attorneys’ fee, which in the court’s opinion was 20% of the entire fee requested.