This firm recently won a decision in Ryan v. Ryan, a family law case revolving around a custody dispute. We were able to successfully argue that the award of costs and attorneys’ fees, which nearly totaled $50,000, should be reversed. Unfortunately our arguments about a more equitable custody arrangement were unsuccessful, which is not surprising given the deference that the Court of Appeals gives to trial courts on such matters.
The full text of the opinion is available HERE. The Court was unanimous in its decision.
Costs and Attorneys’ Fees generally must be based on certain factors which must in turn be based on particular types of evidence. As a general rule, a trial court cannot require one party to pay the costs and attorneys’ fees of the opposing party, even when the opposing party wins the underlying case. Of course, a myriad of exceptions exists for every general rule, including this one. Once the trial court has determined whether the costs and fees are proper in the first place, it must also calculate the exact figures based on competent evidence. On appeal, we argued both that the awards were not authorized by law, and then alternatively that even if they were authorized, the trial court erred in calculating the amounts of those awards. The Court of Appeals agreed, and it reversed the order which required our client to pay nearly $50,000 in fees and costs.
As for the custody issue, those types of issues are very difficult to win. The trial judge has a large amount of discretion in choosing how to structure a shared custody arrangement. In fact, on appeal, the standard for these issues is an “abuse of discretion.” This effectively means that as long as the trial judge’s decision is not apparently irrational or based on facts which are not just incorrect but incorrect beyond dispute, then the appeals court is not going to overturn it. Appellants have better luck if they can identify some particular issue of law on which the trial judge made a mistake. For example, if one of the parents wanted to present expert testimony on a topic — say, the medical needs of the child — and the judge refused to hear it, or refused to qualify the witness as an expert — then that sort of evidentiary issue is a “question of law” that the appeals court will review on a blank slate, rather than giving great deference to the trial judge under an abuse of discretion standard.
Custody cases therefore present a sort of mixed bag when deciding whether the case is worth pursuing. On one hand, when the judge assesses fees and costs, those monetary amounts are an objective measure of what the case is “worth” and whether that value justifies spending legal fees on an appeal. On the other hand, custody arrangements for a person’s child are of course subjective in value. How can you put a dollar figure on having open visitation with your child? While the answer to that sort of question seems impossible, at some point the client has to make a financial decision. Fortunately that decision does not have to commit the parent to the full costs of an appeal. At the beginning of a case, we will necessarily have an incomplete picture of the case’s merits. As the case is developed on appeal, that picture tends to crystallize. The chances of success may start to look better, but they may also start to look much worse. This firm is committed not only to representing clients as vigorously as they want to be represented, but also to counseling clients when it might be the practical choice to stop throwing bad money after good. A good attorney will have his client’s best interests at heart even when it means closing a case. I often remind clients and potential clients that when I recommend that they drop a case, I am literally recommending that I earn less on the case. I hope this point makes the client take that advice seriously.