Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Prevailing Party is Entitled to Contractually Agreed-Upon Attorney's Fees

May 23, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals, which declined to award attorney’s fees on appeal in a post-divorce proceeding.

In the underlying final divorce decree of the parties in this case, the husband and wife were parties to a marital dissolution agreement, which contained a provision for the award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in subsequent legal proceedings.  The matter before the Supreme Court arose out of a post-divorce proceeding in which the wife prevailed at trial and on appeal.  As the prevailing party, the wife requested an award of attorney fees from the trial court and the Court of Appeals pursuant to a statutory provision, as well as the parties’ marital dissolution agreement.

The trial court awarded attorney’s fees to the wife, and those fees were affirmed by the Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals, however, declined to award attorney’s fees to the wife on appeal based on the statutory provision, Tennessee Code Annotated section 27-1-122.  It did not address whether the wife was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal pursuant to the parties’ marital dissolution agreement.  Following the Court of Appeals’ denial of the wife’s petition to rehear, the wife appealed to the Supreme Court on the sole issue of whether she was entitled to appellate attorney’s fees under the marital dissolution agreement.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, the Court determined that, although the Court of Appeals has discretion to award attorney’s fees pursuant to certain statutory provisions, it has no discretion “to award attorney’s fees when the parties have a valid and enforceable marital dissolution agreement which requires an award of reasonable attorney’s fees to a prevailing or successful party.”  Rather, the Court of Appeals must apply standard rules regarding contractual interpretation and enforcement.

The Supreme Court did not consider the validity or enforceability of the marital dissolution agreement because that issue was not raised on appeal.  Rather, it considered whether the fees sought by the wife on appeal were within the scope of the marital dissolution agreement.  The Court held that, because the wife was the prevailing party, she was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for determination of the appropriate amount of fees incurred in the appeal to the Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Elizabeth Eberbach v. Christopher Eberbach, authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.