The Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a decision that clarifies an exception to the general rule that attorneys’ fees are not recoverable damages. Talmer Bank & Trust v. Jacobsen, No. 2017AP752-FT (Wis. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2018). The court held that a litigant may recover attorneys’ fees if he or she is forced into litigation with a third party because of another party’s breach of contract.
The Gomezes entered into a land contract with the Jacobsens. The underling land was owned by the Jacobsens, subject to a mortgage. Pursuant to the contract, the Gomezes made monthly payments to the Jacobsens, and in turn the Jacobsens were supposed to continue making mortgage payments. Unbeknownst to the Gomezes, the Jacobsens missed fifteen consecutive monthly mortgage payments. Eventually the mortgage holder initiated a foreclosure action against both the Gomezes and the Jacobsens. The Gomezes reached a settlement with the bank that allowed them to stay on the property. The Gomezes then filed a cross-claim arguing that the Jacobsens must pay their attorneys’ fees that they incurred in defending the foreclosure action.
Generally in the United States, litigants may not recover attorneys’ fees as damages, but there are exceptions to this rule. The Gomezes invoked the “third-party litigation exception,” which states that a party may recover attorneys’ fees if another party’s wrongful act forces the individual into litigation. It was uncontested that the Jacobsens’ breach of the land contract forced the Gomezes into litigation with the bank, therefore the sole question before the circuit court was whether the Jacobsens’ breach constituted a wrongful act. The circuit court held that a breach could not constitute a wrongful act, and therefore the Jacobsens were not required to pay the Gomezes’ attorneys’ fees.
Court of Appeals’ Decision
On appeal, the Jacobsens argued that their breach of contract did not constitute a wrongful act because a wrongful act is limited to fraud, breach of a fiduciary duty, or “something similar.” The court of appeals rejected this argument. “Our supreme court has unequivocally declared that ‘a breach of contract as well as tort may be a basis for allowing [a] plaintiff to recover reasonable third-party litigation expenses.” ¶ 10 (quoting City of Cedarburg Light & Water Comm’n v. Glens Falls Ins. Co., 42 Wis.2d 120, 166 N.W.2d 165 (1969)). The court explained that attorneys’ fees are recoverable when such fees are rightly considered part of the damages flowing from the defendant’s breach of contract.
The court’s decision makes clear that when a party’s breach of contract forces someone else into litigation with a third party, such breach is a wrongful action, which permits the individual to recover his or her attorneys’ fees from the breaching party.