Goche v. WMG, L.C., 20-0817

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtWATERMAN, Justice.
Parties Joseph GOCHE, Appellant, v. WMG, L.C., Appellee.
Docket Number20-0817
Decision Date04 March 2022

970 N.W.2d 860

Joseph GOCHE, Appellant,
v.
WMG, L.C., Appellee.

No. 20-0817

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted January 20, 2022
Filed March 4, 2022
Rehearing Denied March 11, 2022


Philip J. Kaplan of Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Joseph G. Gamble and Wesley T. Graham of Duncan Green, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas W. Lipps of Peterson & Lipps, Algona, for appellee.

Waterman, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all justices joined.

WATERMAN, Justice.

970 N.W.2d 861

This appeal presents a question of first impression: whether Iowa Code section 489.408(1) (2020) allows a manager of an Iowa limited liability company (LLC) to recover from the LLC the attorney fees incurred litigating against the LLC, and if so, whether the manager can also recover "fees on fees," or the additional fees incurred enforcing the statutory fee claim. The statute requires the LLC to indemnify a manager for any debt incurred "in the course of the member's or manager's activities on behalf of the company. " Id. (emphasis added). A member-manager had a falling out with the other members (his siblings) who had removed him as manager. Multiple lawsuits were filed in which the now-former manager prevailed on the merits. His fees at issue were incurred litigating against the LLC.

The district court ordered the LLC to pay its former manager his fees pursuant to section 489.408(1) but declined to award him fees on fees. He appealed and the LLC cross-appealed. We transferred the case to the court of appeals. A two-judge majority determined the LLC must pay its former manager the fees awarded by the district court and his fees incurred seeking those fees. The dissenting judge concluded section 489.408(1) limits reimbursement or indemnity to "activities on behalf of the company" which cannot include fees incurred litigating against the LLC. We granted the LLC's application for further review.

On our review, we agree with the dissent. Under the plain language of section 489.408(1), a manager or former manager cannot recover from the LLC fees incurred litigating against the company, much less fees incurred seeking such fees. We therefore vacate the decision of the court of appeals and reverse the district court's fee award.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

WMG, L.C. is an Iowa Limited Liability Company whose members are Joseph Goche, his brother Michael Goche, and their sisters Jeanne Goche-Horihan and Renee Afshar. Joseph served as a manager from 2010 to early 2017. WMG owned 600 acres of farmland in Kossuth County. Beginning in 2012, WMG leased the farmland to NCJC, Inc., an Iowa corporation owned solely by Joseph. The lease gave NCJC a right of first refusal to purchase the land. The lease provided for annual cash rent of $136,449.70 and automatically renewed each February absent written notice of termination. The lease further provided that if it is not renewed, WMG would reimburse NCJC for the remaining benefits of fertilizer NCJC had previously applied to the land.

Relationships soured, and in 2014 Renee sued WMG and its other members in federal court. At that time Michael and Jeanne were also managers of WMG. That suit was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Renee refiled her lawsuit a year later in the Iowa District Court for Kossuth County, and Jeanne filed a cross-claim against Joseph. The sisters alleged Joseph breached his fiduciary duties owed to WMG. Renee requested appointment of a receiver. NCJC intervened in the lawsuit against WMG, seeking money damages for

970 N.W.2d 862

improvements to the leased property and to enforce its right of first refusal. Joseph personally asserted claims against WMG, including for indemnification, and WMG counterclaimed against Joseph, alleging he breached fiduciary duties he owed WMG.

In a special meeting in February 2017, Joseph was removed from his position as a manager of WMG. By majority vote, the managers agreed to the appointment of a receiver, who prosecuted WMG's claims against Joseph and defended WMG against the claims by Joseph and NCJC. In March, WMG terminated its lease with NCJC, and distributed the farmland to the members of WMG. NCJC sued WMG for breach of contract in a separate action, seeking the cost of fertilizer that NCJC had applied to the farmland. The WMG–NCJC contract provided, "If either party files suit to enforce any of the terms of this lease, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover court costs and reasonable attorney's fees." NCJC ultimately prevailed in that litigation, and after litigating through an appeal to our court, recovered fees it incurred before WMG offered to confess judgment in that case. NCJC, Inc. v. WMG, L.C. , 960 N.W.2d 58, 67–68 (Iowa 2021). Those fees are not at issue in this appeal.

Meanwhile, the litigation continued between Joseph, WMG, and the other members. Joseph incurred attorney fees prosecuting his claims against WMG and his siblings and defending their claims against him. He sought indemnification for his attorney fees, relying exclusively on Iowa Code section 489.408(1).1 After Renee and Jeanne voluntarily dismissed their claims against Joseph in 2016, he sought to recover from WMG his litigation expenses. The district court ruled WMG must indemnify Joseph for his fees resulting from Renee and Jeanne's claims against him, and calculated that amount as $51,455. The court denied the receiver's motion to strike that award, and WMG paid that amount. Those fees are not at issue in this appeal.

The litigation between Joseph and WMG continued. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Joseph, dismissing WMG's breach of fiduciary duty claims against him. The district court subsequently granted his motion for partial summary judgment against WMG. The court ruled that WMG was "liable to Joseph for indemnification of attorney fees and expenses he incurred to defend himself against the claims brought against him by WMG for alleged breach of his duties as a manager of WMG." The case proceeded to a bench trial in January 2020 to determine the amount of the award. Joseph sought $141,451 in attorney fees and litigation expenses,2 which included $95,231 incurred defending WMG's breach of fiduciary duty claims and $46,238 incurred prosecuting his indemnification claims against WMG (the fees on fees). The district court reduced the hourly rate of his lead Minneapolis attorney from $560 to $300 and lowered that firm's paralegal hourly rate to $100. The court then ordered WMG to pay Joseph $68,831 in fees he incurred defending against its claims. The court declined to award Joseph any amount for fees on fees. WMG moved under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.904(2)

970 N.W.2d 863

to further reduce the hourly rates. The court denied that motion. Joseph appealed seeking fees on fees and WMG cross-appealed. We transferred the case to the court of appeals.

A divided court of appeals interpreted Iowa Code section 489.408(1) to allow recovery of attorney fees as "debt," including fees on fees incurred to enforce the statutory right. The majority affirmed the district court's award of fees Joseph incurred defending WMG's breach of fiduciary duty claims against him and remanded the case for the district court to award the fees incurred enforcing his indemnification claim under that Code provision. A dissenting judge interpreted the statute to only allow fees incurred on behalf of WMG, not fees Joseph "incurred while suing WMG " or "defending himself against WMG. " We granted WMG's application for further review.

II. Standard of...

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1 practice notes
  • Struck v. Mercy Health Services-Iowa Corp., 20-1228
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • April 22, 2022
    ..., 913 N.W.2d 554, 575 (Iowa 2018). We review rulings on statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law. Goche v. WMG, L.C. , 970 N.W.2d 860, 863 (Iowa 2022).III. Analysis.Our court has not yet interpreted or applied Iowa Code section 147.140, enacted in 2017. See 2017 Iowa Acts ch......
1 cases
  • Struck v. Mercy Health Services-Iowa Corp., 20-1228
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • April 22, 2022
    ..., 913 N.W.2d 554, 575 (Iowa 2018). We review rulings on statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law. Goche v. WMG, L.C. , 970 N.W.2d 860, 863 (Iowa 2022).III. Analysis.Our court has not yet interpreted or applied Iowa Code section 147.140, enacted in 2017. See 2017 Iowa Acts ch......

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