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Court News Ohio

Fifth District: Attorney Fees in Licking County Dispute Cut by 87 Percent

A Licking County trial judge wrongly overruled a magistrate’s decisions by approving $5,980 in attorney fees for a contempt-of-court hearing, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals Monday reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the matter back to the lower court to reduce, by 87 percent, the attorney fees awarded to a woman who filed the complaint against her ex-husband.

In January 2013, Patricia Byers sought a civil protection order against Frank Byers III to prevent him from interfering with her Internet sales operation and her sale of property through Garth’s Auctions, Inc. of Delaware, Ohio. On March 15, 2013, the court granted a one-year protective order to Patricia Byers. She then filed contempt-of-court motions charging Frank Byers violated the order on the same day it was issued, as well as on March 19, and April 16.

A Licking County magistrate hearing the complaint determined Frank Byers did not receive the protective order until March 26, and overruled the contempt complaints for March 15 and 19. He did determine that Amelia Jeffers, owner of Garth’s Auction, felt she was threatened by Frank Byers and was justified to have law enforcement present at the auction involving Patricia Byers’ items.

However, the magistrate concluded Patricia Byers’ account “contained more drama and appeared to be somewhat exaggerated,” and further noted that Jeffers accused her of bid rigging and excluded her from the auction, the appeals court noted. The magistrate  ordered  Frank Byers to pay Patricia Byers $44 in expenses and set a hearing for attorney fees. Patricia Byers presented a fee statement of $9,790, but the magistrate could not determine what professional services were incurred in connection with the April 16 incident. At an additional hearing in January 2014, Patricia Myers presented evidence that she incurred $5,980 in attorney fees, but Frank Byers presented expert testimony that the counsel’s time presented for the contempt hearing was excessive.

The magistrate determined the attorney spent 5.3 hours on the matter and, at a rate of $150 per hour, awarded $795. The magistrate noted that Patricia Byers’ original expense statement incorporated the work for the three contempt motions, including the two the magistrate overruled, and for a contract dispute with Garth’s Auctions. Frank Byers objected to the decision and the trial court judge found the magistrate’s ruling to be very detailed and provided “an excellent breakdown of the evidence.” While the trial judge indicated there was not enough evidence at the hearing to determine  whether the attorney spent the time on the case as stated,  he concluded the fees were reasonable and awarded the $5,980. Frank Byers appealed to the Fifth District.

Writing for the Fifth District, Judge Craig R. Baldwin noted the court must find the trial judge decision was unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable to overturn it. Judge Baldwin found the fee statement reflected the intertwining of the three motions and complications of Patricia Byers being accused of bid rigging. The appeals court noted the magistrate carefully examined evidence to determine the time spent on the April 16 contempt motion, which is the only matter for  which fees could be awarded.

Judge Baldwin also wrote that while the trial judge stated he did not believe there was evidence at the hearing proving the hours worked, the judge found the bill reasonable. “The trial court’s opinion is internally inconsistent and not supported by the evidenced presented at the hearing,” he concluded.

The appeals court directed the lower court enter a judgment with the magistrate’s calculation of $795.

Judges W. Scott Gwin and Patricia A. Delaney concurred in the decision.

Byers v. Byers, 2015-Ohio-849
Civil Appeal From: Licking County
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: March 9, 2015

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