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Case Notes: Counsel Fees

We often get questions about counsel fees. Can I make the other side pay my fees? When does the court order counsel fees? What if the other side has racked up excessive counsel fees?

In Morgans v. Morgans, FD-98-10373, Allegheny CP (May 7, 2012), the court dealt with the issue of whether one side must pay the exorbitant legal fees of the other.

In Morgans, Husband and Wife entered into a Marriage Settlement Agreement whereby Husband agreed to pay to Wife $2,000 in alimony. However, several years later, the parties agreed to modify the agreement and that Husband would pay Wife $750 a month instead. Wife and her attorney both signed this agreement.

Regardless, Wife later filed a Petition seeking to enforce the original Marriage Settlement Agreement and the $2,000 a month in alimony. During deposition, Wife admitted to signing the modification, and recalled explicit details such as its notarization. Her attorney was present for this deposition and had received copies of the modified support agreement.

Despite this clear evidence that both parties had consented to modify the original Agreement, Wife moved forward with her Petition seeking to enforce the original agreement. Because of this frivolous litigation, Husband racked up approximately $97,000 in counsel fees.

The court award counsel fees to Husband in the amount of $57,600 rather than the full amount. The trial court indicated that it has wide latitude to review the reasonableness of attorney's fees based upon the time put into the case and the work done. Here, the court found them to be exorbitant and only awarded a portion.

Morgans teaches us two very important lessons: (1) choose an attorney who is diligent and will not purpose a claim without merit as you can be left holding the bill for the other side, and (2) you should choose an attorney who charges a reasonable rate. Counsel fees are often not granted. Even if you are granted attorney's fees, the court may only force your opponent to pay part of it. In Morgans, Wife filed a meritless claim and should have been responsible for counsel fees, but Husband was still on the line for close to $40,000 in fees due to the high charges of his attorney. We work hard to keep our fees as reasonable as possible and never "double bill" as some firms do.