Attorneys’ Fees Awarded Based on Void Contract

Recently, in California-American Water Company v. Marina Coast Water District, a California court of appeal found prevailing parties could recover attorneys’ fees based on a void contract under Code of Civil Procedure section 1717 (“section 1717”). The non-prevailing party challenged the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees, posing the question, “How can an attorney fees provision in a contract govern the parties’ fees obligations when the contract itself is deemed to have been void from its inception?”

In Santisas v. Goodin (1998) 17 Cal.4th 599, the California Supreme Court held that “when a party litigant prevails in an action on a contract by establishing that the contract is invalid, inapplicable, unenforceable, or nonexistent, section 1717 permits that party’s recovery of attorney fees whenever the opposing parties would have been entitled to attorney fees under the contract had they prevailed.” (Santisas, supra, 17 Cal.4th at p. 611.)

The appellant in California-American argued that the trial court’s attorney fees award contravened section 1717’s limitation that fees be awarded only in an “action on a contract.” In California-American, no contract-based claims were at issue. The only issue litigated was the effect of a board member’s conflict of interest on the validity of certain contracts. In other words, the action was one to declare certain contracts void. The losing party argued that such a claim is not an “action on a contract.” However, the appellate court in California-American found “a party’s entitlement to attorney fees under section 1717 turns on the fact that the litigation was about the existence and enforceability of the contract, not on the presence of particular contractual claims . . .” The court noted that a California appellate court had previously found a suit brought by litigants seeking to have a contract declared void is an “action on a contract” for the purposes of section 1717. (Eden Township Healthcare Dist. v. Eden Medical Center (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 418, 426.) Since an action to declare a contract void is an “action on a contract” for purposes of section 1717, attorneys’ fees can be awarded based on an attorney fees provision of a void contract.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

 

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