Monday, October 10, 2011

Suntrust Bank v. Goldman (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: September 30, 2011
Opinion by: Judge James R. Eyler

Held: The prevailing party in a suit for breach of a line of credit agreement may only be awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of fees actually incurred (including future fees that can be proven with certainty), notwithstanding contract language allowing for recovery of a greater sum measured as a percentage of the principal loan amount.

Facts: A borrower entered into a line of credit agreement with a bank. The agreement contained a clause that stated that the borrower would be responsible to pay any costs of collection for failure to pay on the loan, including 15% of the principal as attorneys' fees or reasonable attorneys' fees. The borrower defaulted and the bank sued. The borrower failed to answer, and the trial court awarded the bank an order of default for the principal amount due and interest. The bank also asked the court for attorneys' fees in the amount of $60,206.00, or 15% of the principal. The court denied this request and only awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of $3,258.30, or the actual fees incurred to date plus costs. The bank filed a motion to revise judgment to award attorneys' fees as provided in the contract, which the trial court denied. The bank appealed.

Analysis: The Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

The bank argued that it sought the 15% fee to cover actual fees, as well as fees it may incur in the future as a result of efforts to enforce the judgment. The bank pointed out that if it were denied that fee, it would not be able to sue to enforce the provision after final judgment due to the doctrine of merger.

The Court stated that attorneys' fee provisions are in the nature of indemnity agreements. The Court explained that "Maryland law limits the amount of contractual attorneys fees to actual fees incurred, regardless of whether the contract provides for a greater amount." The Court distinguished this case from Webster v. People's Loan, Sav. & Deposit Bank of Cambridge, 160 Md. 57 (1976) that contained language by the Court of Appeals that supports the bank's claim for the 15% attorneys' fee then later crediting the appellees with the amount of fees not actually incurred. This Court distinguished Webster because it dealt with a judgment by confession when confessed judgments were entered by the clerk of the court based on the terms of the underlying note. Now, the Court explained, the procedure is different. Md. Rule 2-611, amended in 2010, includes a new section (b) which "requires a court to review a confessed judgment for factual and legal validity before the clerk may enter the judgment." Therefore, judicial review of confessed judgment is now done at the outset where the reviewing court can make a determination as to the reasonableness of the attorneys' fees.

The bank explained that it should be able to claim un-incurred fees, subject to later credit because the merger doctrine does not allow a party to seek post-judgment requests for attorneys' fees for which the court has already entered judgment. The Court discusses various ways to avoid the merger bar, including for the parties to state their intent in the contract that the fee provision shall not merge into the judgment (without specifying how this would be done).

The Court concluded that in order to collect both incurred fees and future fees, the requesting party will need to put on evidence of fees that it will certainly incur in the future, as well as those fees actually incurred at that time, as long as they are reasonable. Because the bank presented no evidence as to any agreement to pay attorneys' fees other than on an hourly basis and no evidence to provide fees certain to be incurred in the future, the Court concluded that the trial court had properly awarded only incurred attorneys' fees to the bank.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

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