Cadwell v. City of Highland Park

Decision Date19 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 338070,338070
Citation324 Mich.App. 642,922 N.W.2d 639
Parties Theodore CADWELL and Glenn Quaker, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. CITY OF HIGHLAND PARK, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Robin H. Kyle for plaintiffs.

James W. McGinnis PC (by James W. McGinnis ) for defendant.

Before: Beckering, P.J., and M. J. Kelly and O’Brien, JJ.

M. J. Kelly, J.Defendant, the city of Highland Park, appeals as of right the trial court order awarding postjudgment attorney fees to plaintiffs, Theodore Cadwell and Glenn Quaker. We conclude that a plaintiff prevailing on an action filed under the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA), MCL 15.361 et seq ., may recover postjudgment attorney fees under MCL 15.364. However, because the trial court failed to properly evaluate whether the requested attorney fees were reasonable and appropriate, we vacate the court’s order awarding postjudgment attorney fees and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BASIC FACTS

Cadwell and Quaker were formerly employed by Highland Park as its chief of police and deputy chief of police, respectively. In October 2010, they filed a complaint against Highland Park, which was later amended to add a claim that they were retaliated against in violation of the WPA and their employment agreements. The matter proceeded to a jury trial, and the jury found for Cadwell and Quaker on their contract claims and their claims under the WPA. The jury awarded Cadwell and Quaker $760,680 each, which included $500,000 each in damages for emotional distress. On May 14, 2013, the trial court entered a judgment awarding Cadwell and Quaker each $760,680, plus costs and $47,695.60 in attorney fees.

Highland Park appealed in this Court, which affirmed the jury’s verdict but concluded that the award of emotional distress damages was unsupported by the evidence, so remittitur was warranted under MCR 2.611(E). Cadwell v. Highland Park , unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued May 28, 2015 (Docket No. 318430), p. 7, 2015 WL 3448616. On remand, Cadwell and Quaker accepted the reduced award, and the trial court entered a remittitur judgment stating that the judgment amount, all costs, and all attorney fees "shall earn and bear interest at the applicable statutory rate pursuant to MCL § 600.6013(8) [.]" Based on our review of the lower court record, it appears that since the remittitur judgment was entered, at least 10 motions have been filed in the trial court seeking various types of relief, with some of the motions resulting in decisions that were appealed in this Court with varying results.

For example, in June 2016, the trial court granted Cadwell and Quaker’s motion seeking a writ of mandamus compelling Highland Park to place the judgment on its tax rolls. The court denied reconsideration of that motion, and Highland Park appealed in this Court, which dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction. Cadwell v. Highland Park , unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered July 27, 2016 (Docket No. 333962).

The parties also disputed the appropriate amount of interest due on the judgment. The trial court eventually accepted Cadwell and Quaker’s calculation of interest and entered an order in January 2017 stating that as of November 30, 2016, the total balance owed by Highland Park was $433,281.80 and stating that the balance was due immediately. Again, Highland Park filed a claim of appeal with this Court, which was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Cadwell v. Highland Park , unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered February 8, 2017 (Docket No. 336758). Thereafter, Highland Park filed an application for leave to appeal the January 2017 order regarding interest on the judgment, and in a peremptory order, this Court reversed and remanded for recalculation of the amount of interest due. Cadwell v. Highland Park , unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered March 20, 2017 (Docket No. 336969).

In February 2017, the trial court entered an order holding Highland Park in contempt for failing to comply with an August 2016 writ of mandamus that required Highland Park to produce certain documents. Highland Park appealed in this Court, which vacated the contempt order because it was entered without affording Highland Park minimal due process. Cadwell v. Highland Park , unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered March 20, 2017 (Docket No. 337061).

The present appeal arises from a motion filed by Cadwell and Quaker on March 22, 2017, which sought additional attorney fees and costs for the efforts their lawyer had expended to enforce and collect on the remittur judgment. They contended that pursuant to the WPA, Highland Park was responsible for their posttrial attorney fees. Cadwell and Quaker supported their motion with a record of the hours spent by their lawyer on the case between March 24, 2016, the day after our Supreme Court denied leave to appeal this Court’s opinion remanding for remittitur, and March 21, 2017, the day before the motion for additional attorney fees was filed. The record included a total of 148.8 hours. When multiplied by the requested rate of $400 per hour, Cadwell and Quaker requested additional attorney fees totaling $59,520. The record also listed filing fees of $140. Ultimately, Cadwell and Quaker sought a total of $59,660 for posttrial attorney fees.

Highland Park argued that postjudgment attorney fees were not recoverable under the WPA and that Cadwell and Quaker were improperly attempting to recover attorney fees related to decisions that were ultimately reversed by this Court. At oral argument before the trial court, Cadwell and Quaker contended that fees were appropriate for the time spent trying to recover on the judgment since March 2016. Highland Park argued that it had paid Cadwell and Quaker about $401,000 and that a payment plan would be put in place for the remainder of what was owed. It further requested that if the court awarded attorney fees, the court should only award a reasonable amount, taking into consideration Highland Park’s need to zealously advocate the matter posttrial.

After clarifying that the request was for 148.8 hours of work, the trial court stated that Cadwell and Quaker’s lawyer "has not included all of the hours that he has spent," that a rate of $200 per hour was "not an insult" but instead took into consideration that Highland Park was financially not in a position to pay more, and that the rate awarded "still might be a little under what somebody" with "30 plus years" of practice would normally receive. Accordingly, the trial court granted the motion, awarding Cadwell and Quaker attorney fees of $29,760, representing 148.8 hours at $200 an hour.

II. ATTORNEY FEES
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Highland Park argues that the trial court erred by granting postjudgment attorney fees to Cadwell and Quaker. A trial court’s decision to award attorney fees under the WPA is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. O’Neill v. Home IV Care, Inc. , 249 Mich.App. 606, 612, 643 N.W.2d 600 (2002). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court’s decision falls outside the range of reasonable and principled outcomes." Edge v. Edge , 299 Mich.App. 121, 127, 829 N.W.2d 276 (2012) (quotation marks and citation omitted). The court’s factual findings are reviewed for clear error. Id . Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Id .

B. ANALYSIS

As a general rule, attorney fees "are not recoverable from the losing party as costs in the absence of an exception set forth in a statute or court rule expressly authorizing such an award." Haliw v. Sterling Hts. , 471 Mich. 700, 707, 691 N.W.2d 753 (2005). Here, the WPA provides that a trial court may, in its discretion, award a plaintiff who brought a claim under the WPA "reasonable attorney fees" if the court finds it "appropriate" to do so. MCL 15.364. Pursuant to MCL 15.364, the trial court’s original judgment in this case included an award for reasonable attorney fees, which Highland Park did not challenge in its first appeal. Further, the remittitur judgment entered following remand from this Court likewise contained an award of reasonable attorney fees in Cadwell and Quaker’s favor. Highland Park agrees that the award of attorney fees in connection with the original judgment and the remittitur judgment was appropriate under the WPA. However, Highland Park argues that the WPA only permits the trial court to award attorney fees in connection with work leading up to the moment that a judgment is entered and that it does not allow a court to award any attorney fees for postjudgment legal proceedings. Accordingly, it contends that the trial court erred by awarding Cadwell and Quaker attorney fees for their lawyer’s work on the case after the remittitur judgment was entered by the trial court.1

Although MCL 15.364 plainly allows for an award of attorney fees to a plaintiff who prevails on a claim brought under the WPA, we have not had an occasion to determine whether that same statutory provision also permits a court to award attorney fees for legal representation taken after the initial judgment on the WPA claim is entered, i.e., postjudgment attorney fees. When interpreting a statute, our primary goal "is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature." Solution Source, Inc. v. LPR Assoc. Ltd. Partnership , 252 Mich.App. 368, 372-373, 652 N.W.2d 474 (2002). The words used in a statute must be construed "in light of their ordinary meaning and their context within the statute as a whole." Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc. (On Remand) , 321 Mich.App. 436, 445, 909 N.W.2d 311 (2017) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Further, "[a] court must give effect to every word, phrase, and clause, and avoid an interpretation that renders any part of a statute nugatory or surplusage." Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted).

MCL 15.364 provides:

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