What Are Attorney's Fee Awards?

Attorney’s fee awards refer to the order of the payment of the attorney fees of one party by another party. In the U.S., each party in a legal case typically pays for his/her own attorney fees, under a principle known as the American rule.

Key Takeaways

  • Attorney's fee awards are the payment of one's legal costs by another party, often as the result of a judgement.
  • Depending on the jurisdiction, often the losing side of a complaint will be required to pay the other side's attorney fees.
  • In many cases, actual lawyer fees are not paid dollar for dollar, but are instead estimated by a reasonable criteria.

Understanding Attorney's Fee Awards

Attorney's fee awards are considered a characteristic inherent in the actual law, and the award is not contingent upon the level of court in which the case is tried. For example, a state court can award attorney's fees for a case involving federal laws or statutes. The practice of ordering the losing side in a case to pay for the winning side’s legal fees is also known as fee shifting.

In many other countries, the losing side always pays all legal fees involved in a case. Even in the United States, however, courts can, in some cases, order the losing side to pay for the winning party's attorney fees.

When Attorney’s Fee Awards May Be Granted

The court may order the losing party in a case to pay the winning party’s legal fees when statute, case law, or a contract allows the successful litigant to obtain legal fees from the unsuccessful litigant. Attorney's fee awards are granted in a number of instances, such as class-action lawsuits, civil rights violations, and copyright and patent infringements or disputes. Some examples of the types of statutes that permit shifting fees to the losing party in litigation include:

  • Consumer protection statutes;
  • Civil rights statutes, especially those intended to prevent discrimination in public accommodations or employment;
  • Environmental protection statutes; and
  • Other statutes intended to protect the public good or the public interest.

In order to obtain an attorney’s fee award, the litigant seeking such an award must prove both that the fees in question have, in fact, been incurred and that they are reasonable.

Determining the Amount of Attorney’s Fee Awards

The actual amount awarded may not necessarily equal the amount paid by the plaintiff; many courts use the lodestar method of billing, which multiplies reasonable expected billable hours by a reasonable hourly rate. The court will consider the attorney’s experience and skill and determine what an attorney of similar expertise might charge in the community in which the court sits.

In order to determine a reasonable number of hours, the applicant can bill for the same amount of time that they would be able to bill their own clients, excluding claims on which they were unsuccessful, hours are not adequately documented, and work that is deemed unnecessary, excessive, or redundant. In general, the fee applicant can be awarded compensation for any expenses that would normally be paid by a client.