In Lambert v. Sea Oats Condominium Ass'n (Va. S.Ct. 4/13/17), a condo resident sued a condo association for $500 plus attorney's fees under a fee-shifting statute covering such suits (Va. Code §§ 55-79.79(A)). She won the $500, but the trial court limited her fee award to $375 because of the low amount of damages. The Supreme Court reverses, noting that the statute says a prevailing party "shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees." The "results obtained" is one factor to consider in determining reasonableness, but merely applying a limit or a ratio -- any ratio -- based on the amount of damages is not an adequate effort to determine reasonableness. The difference between damages sought and damages awarded may be a more informative indicator, the Court suggested, but even that would not be controlling.
Litigation is expensive and laborious, every step requires an attorney's time, and attorneys may expect reasonable compensation for their time, Justice William C. Mims wrote for a unanimous court.
Sea Oats also argued that the amount of fees requested had to be stated at the beginning of the suit, and had to be proved as part of the plaintiff's prima facie case, not afterwards. The Court rejected both arguments. The amount of fees cannot be known at the time the case is filed, and the only notice required is including a request for a fee award in the initial case filing, as required by Supreme Court Rule 3:25(B). And "it is often appropriate to delay the issue of awarding attorney's fees until the disposition on the merits reveals which party has actually prevailed, and on which claims."