Abuse of Discretion to Award Attorneys’ Fees in Guardianship Action Absent A Finding of Bad Faith Conduct

A Court has the inherent authority to award attorneys’ fees and costs as a sanction against a litigant.  However, a court that chooses to do so must make an express finding of bad faith conduct.

The Third District, in Goldman v. EO Goldman 3D14-0098 (Fla. 3d DCA June 17, 2015), reversed an award of attorneys’ fees as a sanction in a guardianship action because the trial court abused its discretion in granting the award without an express finding of bad faith conduct.  The express finding “must be supported by detailed factual findings describing the specific acts of bad faith conduct that resulted in the unnecessary incurrence of attorneys’ fees.” Id. (quoting Moakley v. Smallwood, 826 So. 2d 221, 227 (Fla. 2002)). Under the Supreme Court’s framework outlined in Moakley, the amount of the attorneys’ fees award must be directly related to the attorneys’ fees and costs the adversary has incurred as a result of the “specific bad faith conduct of the attorney” and requires notice as well as an opportunity to be heard.  Id.

In Goldman, the court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem for Aaron Goldman in his guardianship proceedings provided confidential materials, including medical and financial records, in the guardianship file to the opposing party.  The trial court held a hearing regarding sanctions and found that the attorney sent the file inadvertently and not in bad faith.  The inadvertent and accidental disclosure of the confidential file was not intentional. 

The trial court failed to make specific findings regarding the bad faith conduct as to each party and/or attorney.  Failure by the trial court to do so in its impositions of sanctions required reversal. The Court relied on T/F Systems, Inc. v. Malt, which interpreted Moakley, to hold that the procedures for imposing a sanction award of attorneys’ fees are equally applicable as to an attorney or a party.  814 So. 2d 511, 513 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). Therefore, where the trial court failed to make a specific finding regarding bad faith conduct as to each party or attorney, reversal was required by the Third District. 

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