One important aspect of Florida’s Construction Lien Law is the award to the prevailing party of its attorney’s fees. Specifically, Florida Statutes §713.29 provides as follows:
In any action brought to enforce a lien or to enforce a claim against a bond under this part, the prevailing party is entitled to recover a reasonable fee for the services of his or her attorney for trial and appeal or for arbitration, in an amount to be determined by the court, which fee must be taxed as part of the prevailing party’s costs, as allowed in equitable actions.
Logically, one might think that this means that a property owner who successfully discharges a claim of lien is automatically entitled to an award of its reasonable attorney’s fees. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal recently addressed one such situation in the case of GMPF Framing, LLC v. Villages at Lake Lily Associates, LLC, et al., 37 Fla. L. Weekly D2562 (Case No. 5D11-1701). In that case, GMPF Framing, LLC (“GMPF”) had filed a claim of lien against property owned by Villages at Lake Lily Associates, LLC (“Villages”). The trial court discharged the lien, but GMPF’s other claims against Villages had not yet been resolved. Upon discharge of the lien, Villages sought an award of its attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to Fla. Stat. §713.29 and the trial court entered a final judgment of attorney’s fees and costs against GMPF. GMPF appealed that attorney’s fee judgment.
The appellate court acknowledged that Fla. Stat. §713.29 provides for an award of attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party in a lien claim, but noted that “the prevailing party is not necessarily the party who recovers a net judgment.” The Court went on to find that “the prevailing party in a lien suit is that party that has prevailed on ‘significant issues’ in the case.” Because GMPF’s remaining claims for quantum meruit and equitable lien involved the same transaction, the Court held that those claims should have been considered in the trial court’s determination of the prevailing party. The Court noted that an owner who successfully defends a lien claim, but is found liable for damages for breach of contract is not considered the prevailing party for purposes of Fla. Stat. §713.29 and, as such, not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to that statute. Based upon that reasoning, the Court concluded that it would be impossible to determine which party was the prevailing party until the remaining claims were resolved.
Accordingly, practitioners should remember that, as highlighted by Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in GMPF Framing, successfully discharging a construction lien will not necessarily entitle an owner to an award of attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to Fla. Stat. §713.29.