Gavel to Gavel: Show your math — Protecting attorney fee awards

Image of legal or law book with attorneys fees focused in closeup of explanation.

Remember when your math teacher told you to show your work even if you had the correct answer?

Now, that exact requirement unequivocally applies to attorney fee awards in Oklahoma. In a recent decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court emphasized that attorney fee awards demand more than mere numbers. The trial judge’s order and record must show its work and specify the relied-upon facts and methodology used in assessing the award.

In Fleig v. Landmark Construction Group, 2024 OK 25, the defendant filed a motion for attorney fees and costs in the trial court after a decade of litigation in both the trial and appellate courts. The defendant supplemented its motion with a spreadsheet addressing the hours spent from 2014 to 2020. Although the plaintiff disagreed with the amount the defendant was seeking as an award, the parties agreed that the defendant was entitled to recover its costs and attorney fees. Due to the lengthy and complex litigation, the parties sought to simplify the process by requesting a “number” instead of a detailed analysis and order from the trial court.

The problem, however, was that the two-page order awarding attorney fees did not state with specificity the facts and computation used to support the award. The trial court’s order and record did not include findings of fact concerning the hours spent, reasonable hourly rates and the value the trial judge attributed to the additional factors in determining the award.

Echoing its 1979 ruling in State ex rel. Burk v. City of Oklahoma City, the Supreme Court directed attorneys seeking compensation, including incentives or bonuses, to substantiate their claims with detailed time records showing the work performed and other evidence as to the reasonable value for the services rendered, as measured by local legal community standards.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court emphasized the crucial role of the trial judge in the process, stating that any order awarding attorney fees must specify the supporting facts and computation with precision. A trial judge is duty-bound to make findings of fact, incorporated into the record, regarding the hours spent, reasonable hourly rates and the value placed on additional factors in each case. Further, in awarding compensation for incentives or bonuses, a judge’s order must demonstrate the reasonable value to be given for incentive fees and must bear a reasonable relationship to the aggregate hourly compensation. Therefore, any request by the parties to “just give them a number” will not relieve the trial judge of this crucial duty.

Fleig v. Landmark Construction Group serves as a cautionary case, highlighting the consequences of an order awarding attorney fees that are not clearly supported by the record. Given the Supreme Court’s mandatory directive to both the trial judges and attorneys, any agreement between the parties that forgoes the mandatory showing of the criteria and standards will not be upheld by the appellate courts.

Conversely, if the trial judge’s order embodies the requisite showing, then the only appealable issue is whether the award was “reasonable,” and absent an abuse of discretion by the trial judge, the award will be upheld.

The takeaway: show your work today, and your hard-fought fee award will likely be upheld tomorrow.

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This article appeared in the April 25, 2024, issue of The Journal Record. It is reproduced with permission from the publisher.
© The Journal Record Publishing Co.