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In re Estate of Stokes

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

August 28, 2019

In the Estate of Jennie M. Stokes, Deceased

          On Appeal from the Probate Court Denton County, Texas Trial Court No. PR-2009-00220-02

          Before Kerr, Birdwell, and Bassel, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELIZABETH KERR JUSTICE.

         Plaintiff-Appellee Mayrita J. Roberts Hillman sued multiple defendants for conspiring to obtain her elderly mother's property, adding as a defendant Appellee Clark W. Brazil, M.D., the medical doctor who had long cared for her mother, Jennie M. Stokes. Hillman filed no chapter 74 expert report under the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA), [1] nor did Dr. Brazil move to dismiss on that basis after 120 days had passed without an expert report, as the statute allowed him to do.[2] Instead, Dr. Brazil participated in merits discovery for some 18 months before moving to dismiss on the ground that Hillman had in reality lodged a healthcare-liability claim against him despite her artful pleadings and thus an expert report was required but had not been timely provided.[3]

         The trial court denied Dr. Brazil's motion to dismiss, but we reversed and rendered in part, holding that Hillman's claims against him should be dismissed with prejudice under TMLA section 74.351(b)(2). See Brazil v. Hillman, No. 02-13-00441-CV, 2014 WL 4770722, at *5 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth Sept. 25, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.); see also Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 74.351(b)(2). We remanded only for the trial court to decide how much Dr. Brazil should recover in statutorily mandated "reasonable attorney's fees and costs of court incurred," as section 74.351(b)(1) provides. See Brazil, 2014 WL 4770722, at *5; see also Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 74.351(b)(1).

         On remand, the trial court conducted a three-day bench trial on the issue of attorney's fees. Almost all the fee testimony was from each side's expert. One issue that was disputed throughout the trial was whether the lodestar method[4] applied to the entire attorney's-fee award under section 74.351. Relying on the lodestar method, Dr. Brazil presented evidence and testimony from his expert and trial counsel, both of whom opined that Dr. Brazil had incurred over $100, 000 in attorney's fees. In contrast, Hillman's expert testified that because of TMLA section 74.351(s)'s discovery-restricting provisions, applying the lodestar method to Dr. Brazil's attorney's fees as a whole was "mixing apples and oranges" and that the reasonable and necessary amount of attorney's fees that Dr. Brazil had incurred and that were recoverable was $38, 796.88. The attorney's-fee trial also included much back and forth over whether Dr. Brazil should recover "reasonable" fees-the statutory language-as opposed to fees that were "reasonable and necessary."[5]

         At the trial's conclusion, the trial court ruled from the bench that Dr. Brazil should recover $44, 335.[6] The trial court then entered findings of fact and conclusions of law that referred in passing to the Arthur Andersen factors used to determine the reasonableness and necessity of attorney's fees. See Arthur Andersen & Co. v. Perry Equip. Corp., 945 S.W.2d 812, 818 (Tex. 1997) (op. on reh'g) (setting out eight factors used to adjust a base lodestar rate up or down). The trial court's findings and conclusions did not specifically address the lodestar method, nor did they tether the trial court's unilateral decision to add $6, 000 to the fee award to any facts or legal analysis.

         The Texas Supreme Court has recently provided new guidance to litigants and courts on how to assess attorney's fees in cases involving a fee-shifting statute or contract. See Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, No. 16-0006, 2019 WL 1873428, at *8-26 (Tex. Apr. 26, 2019). There, the supreme court recognized that "Texas law has developed with references to the Arthur Andersen method (sometimes referred to as the 'traditional' method) and the lodestar method for proving the reasonableness and necessity of attorney's fees." Id. at *13. But despite the different terminology-which Texas courts have long kept separate-the supreme court clarified that "the lodestar method developed as a 'short hand version' of the Arthur Andersen factors and was never intended to be a separate test or method." Id. Moreover, Rohrmoos Venture also instructs that "reasonable" fees are the same as "reasonable and necessary" fees, observing that the distinction between the two phrasings is "immaterial." Id. at *12. "When a claimant wishes to obtain attorney's fees from the opposing party, the claimant must prove that the requested fees are both reasonable and necessary." Id. The elements of both "reasonableness" and "necessity" are "questions of fact to be determined by the fact finder and act as limits on the amount of fees that a prevailing party can shift to the non-prevailing party." Id.

         Because this recent supreme court authority has materially affected and provided guidance to central questions in the underlying trial for attorney's fees here, [7] we reverse the judgment and remand the case for another trial to determine an appropriate award to Dr. Brazil on his claim for fees. See Toledo v. KBMT Operating Co., LLC, No. 09-17-00265-CV, 2019 WL 2455270, at *1, *6 (Tex. App.-Beaumont June 13, 2019, no pet. h.) (reversing and remanding judgment for attorney's fees in light of "the Texas Supreme Court's recent clarification in Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP").

         Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

---------

Notes:

[1]Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 74.001-.507.

[2]Hillman sued Dr. Brazil in February 2012, and he answered the lawsuit a month later, in March. Under chapter 74, Hillman then had 120 days to file an expert report after Dr. Brazil responded to the lawsuit, or until July 2012. See id. ยง 74.351(a). Although Dr. Brazil could have moved for dismissal under section 74.351 after the 120-day ...


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