Circuit Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Award Post-Judgment Attorney Fees – Should Have Vacated Void Order Under Rule 60(b)(4)

Well after the deadline had passed for filing post-judgment motions, the circuit court purported to grant a new motion to award the defendant attorney fees. This act was void for want of jurisdiction, and should have been vacated on the plaintiff’s motion. Palisades Collection, LLC v. Delaney, 2070532 (Ala. Civ. App. July 10, 2009).

The trial court granted the defendant summary judgment in this account-stated action. The defendant had sought attorney fees but the trial court’s judgment did not address that issue. Neither party filed a post-judgment motion, nor did the plaintiff appeal.

Then, “well after the 30-day deadline period for filing a motion to alter, amend or vacate the judgment [under Rule 59(e)] had passed,” the defendant filed a new motion for expenses under the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act (ALAA). The trial court granted this motion on December 6, 2007, and awarded the defendant attorney fees.

The plaintiff moved to vacate this order. It argued, among other things, that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to enter the order. The lower court denied this motion and the plaintiff appealed.

On review, the Court of Civil Appeals agreed with the plaintiff. The trial court lacked jurisdiction to rule upon the defendant’s late ALAA motion. Referring to that motion as a request for sanctions under the ALAA, the appellate court explained:

Decisions of both this court and the Alabama Supreme Court have interpreted … the ALAA as requiring either that an award of sanctions under the ALAA be included in the trial court’s final judgment or that jurisdiction to decide the matter of ALAA sanctions be expressly reserved by the trial court in the judgment or a proper postjudgment amendment thereto.

Here, the trial court had done neither. It did not address the fee request in its initial summary judgment, and it did not reserve jurisdiction on the question. Consequently, once the post-judgment deadline had passed on its initial judgment, it lost jurisdiction to entertain a request for attorney fees. Its December 6 order was therefore void. On the plaintiff’s motion, the trial court should have vacated that award under Rule 60(b)(4). That rule allows a trial court to relieve a party from a “void” judgment or order. The denial of a Rule 60(b) motion is appealable, but

an appeal from such a denial presents for review only the propriety of that denial; thus, when motion for relief, such as that filed [by the plaintiff] in this case, attacks an order as being void, the controlling inquiry may be stated as follows: “If the judgment is void, it is to be set aside; if it is valid, it must stand.”

Because the trial court lacked jurisdiction to award attorney fees in this case, its December 6 order was void, and should have been vacated upon the plaintiff’s motion. The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the denial of that motion and directed the trial court to vacate its void order.