Eviction Statute Strictly Construed When Awarding Attorney Fees
The case, Ortuzar v. Foley, Case No. 2D21-1262 (Fla. 2d DCA, 2022), centers around a landlord/tenant eviction case and the award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. As with many cases, the parties were initially ordered to mediation, which ended successfully. Based on this resolution, the landlord, filed to voluntarily dismiss the matter. No orders or final judgment were requested or entered by the Court.
Following the dismissal, the tenant, moved for an awarded of attorneys’ fees on the basis of being the “prevailing party.” However, the Court found against her, based on Section 83.48, Florida Statutes, and related case law strictly construing Section 83.48.
Section 83.48, Florida Statutes, in pertinent part, defines the “prevailing party” as one “in whose favor a judgment or decree has been rendered,” and entitles him or her to attorneys’ fees and court costs from the non-prevailing party. Statutes awarding attorneys’ fees must be strictly construed and without an Order or a Final Judgment there is no prevailing party.
The court relied partially on a Florida Supreme Court Opinion, Debaun v. State, 213 So. 3d 747, 751 (Fla. 2017) stating that “determination on the merits is not a prerequisite” to entitlement to attorneys’ fees and costs. Though the Court did not attempt to walk back the finding, it did rely on the “plain and ordinary meaning” of both “judgment,” a final adjudication of a matter on its merits in an equitable action.
Therefore, the court in the Ortuzar case found that the paramount condition that must be met for a trial court to award attorney’s fees is that a judgment or decree must be rendered in favor of the party seeking fees. Therefore, in an eviction matter fees will not be awarded to either party except upon an agreement or by entry of a final judgment.