Helping Texans with a variety of family law cases, including child custody and divorce.

Beating a Request to Pay the other sides attorney’s fees- Attorney’s Fees as Sanctions

by | Jan 6, 2024 | Firm News

 

When it comes to representing yourself in a family law matter, you can certainly save a significant amount of money, but you might also find yourself facing a challenging journey. I call this situation the “pro-se killer” when a pro-se litigant is unexpectedly ordered to pay the opposing party’s legal fees. It’s a tough spot to be in, not only because you’re navigating the complex legal landscape without an attorney, but also because you’re suddenly tasked with footing the bill for the opposing side’s lawyer. This predicament can be discouraging, potentially leading to prolonged litigation and leaving you stuck with the opposing attorney’s fees. However, there are strategies you can employ to tackle this formidable challenge.

Sometimes, attorney’s fees can be ordered when one side brings a motion for sanctions, is successful and the other side is ordered to pay attorney’s fees as a sanction for their conduct.

Thus, a party requesting sanctions must present evidence that the respondent acted in bad-faith. There is a presumption that parties act in good faith that can only be overcome when “intent” and “motive” of the non-moving party are shown. And that intent can’t simply be inferred from the claims being brought. The evidence must be presented according to the rules of evidence which means the moving party must call witnesses and elicited testimony or admit exhibits. The moving attorney cannot simply argue herself that the non-moving party should be sanctioned. Lastly, the moving party must put on sufficient evidence to show the attorney’s fees are reasonable and necessary.

You can try to beat an award for sanctions as attorney’s fees if you show there is insufficient evidence to support the sanctions. Sanctions can be granted when one side acts in “bad faith”. Below is a snippet from an appellate brief I wrote which was used to successfully reverse a sanctions award. The snippet describes the legal standard from showing that a party is acting in “bad faith”.

Courts must presume that the offending pleading is filed in good faith. Tex. R. Civ. P. 13; GTE Communications Sys. Corp. v. Tanner, 856 S.W.2d 725, 731 (Tex. 1993). A party moving for sanctions must, therefore, overcome this presumption of good faith. Unifund CCR Partners v. Villa, 299 S.W.3d 92, 97 (Tex. 2009); see Gomer v. Davis, 419 S.W.3d 470, 478–479 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, no pet.) (sanctions reversed when no evidence presented to rebut presumption of good faith). However, a trial court cannot base a sanctions order on the ultimate legal merit of the parties’ claims and defenses. Gomer, 419 S.W.3d at 481.

The evidence supporting a court’s decision to impose sanctions must be admitted in compliance with the rules of evidence. Alejandro v. Robstown Indep. Sch. Dist, 131 S.W.3d 663, 670 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2004, no pet.); see also McCain v. NME Hosps., Inc., 856 S.W.2d 751, 757 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1993, no writ) (motions and arguments of counsel not evidence in Rule 13 context). A sanctions order that relies only on hearsay evidence is improper. Villa, 299 S.W. 3d at 97–98  (only evidence was objected-to hearsay, which has no probative value).

A movant seeking sanctions for improper pleading should provide proof addressing all elements of the claim. In one case, the movants introduced evidence of the attorney’s fees they had incurred but offered only unsupported argument concerning the other party’s motives. Although some facts adduced during the trial arguably established improper motives on the part of the sanctioned parties, the movants did not present evidence at the sanctions hearing. Thus, the court of appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion in assessing sanctions. Alejandro, 131 S.W.3d at 670.

When a party seeks attorney’s fees as sanctions, the burden is on that party to put forth some affirmative evidence of attorney’s fees incurred and how those fees resulted from or were caused by the sanctionable conduct. Nath v. Tex. Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 709 (Tex. 2019). Billing records or other supporting evidence must substantiate the reasonable hours worked and the reasonable hourly rate. Id. at 710. Conclusory affidavits containing mere generalities about the fees are legally insufficient. Id.

Analysis

In Mobley, the Appellant was ordered to pay $10,000 in attorney’s fees as a sanction for filing a frivolous suit. Mobley v. Mobley, 506 S.W.3d 87, 92 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2016, no pet.). Appellants and Appellee were former husband and wife, 2 years after the divorce the former wife, Appellant, filed a suit against Appellee, alleging that he violated “the special relationship that existed between the parties” when he obtained her wage and income information from the IRS without her permission. Id. Appellant failed to object that Appellant did not sufficiently prove his entitlement of an award, but the Court held that that to insufficiently and no-evidence challenges could be brought for the first time on appeal. Id. at 93.

The Court thoroughly performed a Rule 13 and a Chapter 10 sanction analysis. Id. at 93-95. Under a Rule 13 the burden on the proponent of the sanctions is to prove that sanctionable conduct was, “(1) groundless and brought in bad faith or (2) groundless and brought for purposes of harassment.” Id. at 94 citing Tex. R. Civ. P. 13. The court held that under Chapter 10 sanctions, a proponent must show (1) that the pleading or motion was brought for an improper purpose, (2) that there were no grounds for the legal arguments advanced, or (3) that the factual allegations or denials lacked evidentiary support. Id. An “‘improper purpose’ [is] the equivalent of ‘bad faith’ under Rule 13.” Id. (quoting Dike v. Peltier Chevrolet, Inc., 343 S.W.3d 179, 183-84 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2011, no pet.)). The Court held that even if the suit was brought was groundless, the proponent of sanctions still has the burden of showing the sanctionable conduct was motivated by bad faith or to harass. Id. In Mobley, the proponent of the sanctions only proved up their attorney’s fees and the Court found the suit to be meritless. On these grounds the trial court awarded attorney’s fees as a sanction. However, because motive and intent were not proven and although error was not preserved, the appellate court reversed the award of sanction.

Below is the Law the Court cited when addressing my brief:

Sanctions may be imposed pursuant to Chapter 10 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code and Rule 13 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 10.001, .004(b); Tex.R.Civ.P. 13. Even in the absence of an applicable rule or statute, a court has the inherent authority to impose sanctions for bad-faith abuses of the judicial process. See Brewer, 601 S.W.3d at 718-19 (explaining that court’s inherent power to sanction “exists to the extent necessary to deter, alleviate and counteract bad faith abuse of the judicial process”); Howell v. Texas Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 143 S.W.3d 416, 446 (Tex. App.-Austin 2004, pet. denied). However, whether exercised pursuant to Chapter 10, Rule 13, or its inherent power, a trial court’s discretion to impose sanctions is subject to at least one important limitation: sanctions may only be imposed when the person or party against whom the sanction is sought has received notice and an adequate opportunity to respond. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 10.003 (requiring that “the court shall provide a party who is the subject of motion for sanctions . . . notice of allegations and a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations”); Tex.R.Civ.P. 13 (providing that court shall impose “an appropriate sanction” “upon motion or its own initiative, after notice and hearing”); Brewer, 601 S.W.3d at 718 (explaining that “[t]he court’s inherent power to sanction is not boundless” and “is limited by due process”); Greene v. Young, 174 S.W.3d 291, 298 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, pet. denied) (“The relevant sources for the sanctions imposed in this case-Rule 13, Chapter 10, and the court’s inherent power-expressly require that notice be given to the party subject to the sanctions.”).
In re Champagne, 03-21-00426-CV (Tex. App. Oct 27, 2021)

 

In conclusion, mastering the legal chess game in family law, especially when facing the possibility of attorney’s fees and sanctions, requires not only legal knowledge but also a strategic approach. At the Beveridge Law Firm, PLLC, we specialize in family law and have a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by non-custodial parents who seek more time with their children. Our geographic focus on Brazoria County and Galveston County allows us to provide tailored solutions that align with the specific dynamics of these courts.

Whether you’re currently dealing with family law issues, anticipating potential challenges in your non-custodial parent journey, or facing unexpected attorney’s fees and sanctions, we’re here to help. Our commitment to equal access for parents and our track record in appellate work set us apart in the legal field.

If you find yourself in a situation where attorney’s fees or sanctions have become a concern, remember that we can assist you in navigating these challenges. Whether you need help with appeals or require a skilled trial attorney to advocate for your case, the Beveridge Law Firm, PLLC, is here to provide you with the support and expertise you need.

Don’t hesitate to take action. Call our office at 281-407-0961 or submit your information through our contact form. We are passionate about helping parents secure equal access to their children and are ready to guide you through the legal maze. With our knowledge, dedication, and personalized approach, you can confidently face any family law challenge that comes your way. The Beveridge Law Firm, PLLC, is your ally in achieving the fair and just outcome you deserve.