It isn’t unusual for a trial court to order one party to pay another party’s attorney fees at the end of litigation. There are several court rules and statutes that require such orders. But when attorney fees are awarded, the question quickly becomes “how much?” When the trial court awards less than what the party requested for its attorney fees, the attorneys often have the greatest (or only) interest in contesting the award. In Mathew R. Abel, P.C. v. Grossman Investments Co, the Court of Appeals recognized that interest and held that the attorneys (not just their clients) have standing to file an appeal challenging the fee award as insufficient.
In Mathew R. Abel, the plaintiff obtained a $12,353.23 judgment, but struggled to collect on it for over a decade. The district court appointed a receiver to assist the collection effort, but the receiver encountered his own difficulties collecting on the judgment and retained attorney Michael E. Tindall (among others) to assist him. After the defendant tendered the full judgment with interest, the receiver requested that the defendant pay its fees, which included $18,601.30 for Tindall’s services. The defendant objected to Tindall’s fee and the district court awarded the receiver only $6,950, allocating just $3,500 for attorney fees. Only Tindall filed an appeal to the circuit court from that order. The defendant argued that Tindall lacked standing to appeal. The circuit court agreed and dismissed Tindall’s appeal. But the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “[t]he circuit court erred in dismissing an appeal taken by an individual directly, personally, and financially affected and bound by the district court order.”
The Court of Appeals observed that the court rules governing Tindall’s appeal were recently amended, but Tindall’s appeal arose under the former version. While the current version permits an “aggrieved party” to file an appeal to the circuit court (as the rules for the Court of Appeals did and still do), the former version did not reference an aggrieved party. The Court held that the omission of “aggrieved party” from the former rules was inconsequential. “Aggrieved party” meant someone who has standing in the appellate context, and it was implied that any aggrieved party, i.e., anyone with appellate standing, could appeal a district court order to the circuit court. The Court shot down the defendants’ argument that Tindall had to formally intervene in the district court action before he could appeal. Tindall didn’t have to intervene because his interest wasn’t in the subject matter of the underlying suit; his interest it was only in the order denying his fees. More broadly, the Court held that “intervention is simply not a necessary prerequisite for standing to appeal an attorney fee award.”