Target National Bank v. Higgins
In several recent issues of the Bar Bulletin, my colleague Dave Burkett and I discussed "proportionality" in awards of attorney's fees to a prevailing party, i.e., under what circumstances must a court's award of prevailing party attorney's fees be proportional to the result in the underlying litigation.1 Simply put, when may a litigant obtain as "reasonable attorney's fees" an amount that is a substantial multiple of the damages recovered or the amount in controversy?
Our prior articles discussed specific instances where the proportionality rule does not apply, e.g., workers' compensation benefits obtained through appeals, wage-and-hour cases, and civil rights and employment discrimination cases, to name a few.
In March, Division III of the Washington Court of Appeals handed down its published opinion in Target National Bank v. Higgins,2 which addresses several aspects of attorney's fees awards in the context of the Small Claims Settlement Statute (RCW 4.84.250, et seq.), including proportionality.3 Target Bank v. Higgins is a well-written and reasoned opinion; it has a little bit for everybody and a payoff for ordinary people of modest means - another route for access to justice.
In this respect, the opinion is timely and important. For most people of modest means, their legal problems rarely financially justify most lawyers getting involved. Indeed, the Higgins court postulated, "Many law firms would not even allow (the defendant) Higgins through the office front door."4
For most Americans, legal issues are over what lawyers usually think of as "small potatoes" - that is, "not a lot." One of today's greatest legal conundrums is that access to justice is beyond the great majority of Americans. This is particularly true with the "not a lot" cases, which involve no more than a few thousand dollars. However, Target Bank v. Higgins has cracked open the door to the lawyer's office for people of ordinary means in Washington.
A Typical "Not a Lot" Case
The Small Claims Settlement Statute was enacted in 1973. The court in Higgins recited the statute's purpose "to encourage out-of-court settlements and to penalize parties who unjustifiably bring or resist small claims." "The obvious legislative intent is to enable a party to pursue a meritorious small claim without seeing his award diminished in whole or in part by legal fees."5 The intent of the statute provides the underpinning of the decision awarding Higgins her full lodestar fees.
Target sued Higgins for allegedly defaulting on repayment of about $2,000 in credit card debt. Higgins somehow got a lawyer to take her case. In discovery, the bank failed to provide documentation supporting the claimed charges. Both sides moved for summary judgment; the trial court denied the bank's motion and granted Higgins'.
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