Order Denying Attorney Fees to Legal Services Reversed

Order Denying Attorney Fees to Legal Services Reversed

This summer, Lear Werts partner Todd Werts submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District in the case of Ostermeier v. Prime Properties Investments, Inc., Case No. WD82432 urging the Court to reverse the trial court’s ruling that denied an award of attorneys fees to the prevailing plaintiffs in case brought under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (“MMPA”).

The underlying claim was that the homes leased to the plaintiffs by the defendant-landlord were infested with bedbugs and the landlord refused to do anything about the infestation. A jury awarded the plaintiffs money damages for their MMPA claims.

Under the MMPA, a court may award a prevailing plaintiff its reasonable attorney fees as part of the remedy. The issue on appeal arose when the prevailing plaintiffs asked the trial court to amend the judgment to include an award of attorneys fees.

The plaintiffs in Ostermeier were represented by attorneys from Legal Services of Western Missouri and from a corporate defense firm that were volunteering their time in support of the Legal Aid Society. Legal Services of Western Missouri provides free representation to low-income citizens and to cultivate self-sufficiency among its clients. The trial court refused to allow an attorney fee explaining, in part, that “the plaintiff did not incur any legal fees in that plaintiff was represented by a legal aid attorney and an attorney working on a pro bono basis.” Earlier today, the Court of Appeals reversed this order.

In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals explained that, “Denying an attorney fee award because a litigant is represented by Legal Aid or pro bono counsel thwarts the remedial purposes of the MMPA’s fee shifting provisions. The statutory scheme of the MMPA shows a clear legislative intent to allow attorney compensation regardless of whether a party aggrieved by an MMPA violation has an obligation to pay such fees.”

A copy of the Court’s opinion can be accessed here.