In a recent case, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey held that a plaintiff can be awarded fees even when a case does not reach trial if the suit itself helped encourage a defendant to correct an unlawful practice. Sika Corp. v. Hostler, 2011 N.J. Super. LEXIS 1202 (App. Div. May 11, 2011).
In 2004, the plaintiff, Sika Corporation (“Sika”), hired the defendant, Joseph Hostler (“Hostler”), as the national sales manager of its chemical manufacturing company. Upon being hired, Hostler signed a contract that included a non-compete clause preventing him from disclosing the company’s confidential information; soliciting Sika customers or employees on behalf of a different employer within a year of being terminated; or working, without consent, with a competitor anywhere Sika does business. Id. The agreement also stated that “[i]n the event of a breach… , [plaintiff] shall be entitled to such injunctive relief and damages and also shall be entitled to reimbursement…of [plaintiff’s] reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by [plaintiff] in enforcing” the agreement. Id. at 2, 3.
In April 2009, Hostler notified Sika that he was leaving the company in order to take a position at BASF Group (“BASF”). Shortly after, Sika filed a complaint against Hostler, alleging that he breached his contract with Sika by emailing a customer contact list to his private email address; soliciting Sika’s customers on behalf of BASF while still employed by Sika; and soliciting Sika employees to work with him at BASF.
The lower court entered a preliminary injunction against Hostler and BASF in June 2009 and the parties reached a settlement embodied in a final consent order in September 2009. Sika later applied for attorney’s fees, arguing “that there had been “certain breaches” of the confidentiality agreement that caused it to file suit to enforce the agreement. Finally, plaintiff argued that Hostler had violated his duty of good faith and loyalty, which caused plaintiff to incur costs to enforce the agreement.” Id. at 7. On that basis, Sika argued that Hostler should pay Sika’s attorney’s fees.
However, the Court denied the motion and a subsequent motion for reconsideration. The Court reasoned that it had been settled prior to moving past the preliminary injunction, and therefore, the Court had not made a final ruling on the merits of the case. On that basis, there was no finding that bad faith had occurred.
In a 2008 case, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a litigant is entitled to exercise its right to attorneys fees on the basis of a contract that states attorneys fees will be paid to the “prevailing party.” The issue is how to determine who is the prevailing party if the case was settled before anyone could prevail in the conventional sense.
The test for determining whether someone is a prevailing party is whether the claimant can demonstrate:
1) a factual causal nexus between the plaintiff’s litigation and the relief ultimately achieved, and
2) that the relief ultimately secured by plaintiffs had a basis in law.
Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51, 76 (2008). (“Put differently, a party prevails “when actual relief on the merits of [the] claim materially alters the relationship [*18] between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Id. at 73.)
In Sika, the Appellate Division decided that the lower court had raised the bar of the second prong too high. The Appellate Division agreed with Sika’s argument that the focus should be on whether the “plaintiff’s lawsuit acted as a catalyst that prompted defendant to take action and correct an unlawful practice.” Sika at 19. The Court held that
“[w]hether that resolution involves ‘a judicial decree, a quasi-judicial determination, or a settlement [is] not a factor.” Id.
The Court’s decision is significant because it allowed attorneys fees to a prevailing party that did not actually prevail in the conventional sense. In other words, it highlights the legal concept that a party can prevail (and be entitled to legal fees) even if it settles the case.
© 2011 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC