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Bell v. Waffle House, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia

March 20, 2015

BELL
v.
WAFFLE HOUSE, INC

Offer of settlement. DeKalb Superior Court. Before Judge Adams.

Stevens, Stevens & Oliver, Ronald S. Stevens, Andrew M. Stevens, for appellant.

Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele, Robert D. Ingram, B. Chase Elleby, for appellee.

OPINION

Page 133

Doyle, Presiding Judge.

Plaintiff George Bell appeals from the trial court's award of attorney fees and litigation expenses under OCGA § 9-11-68 (b) (1), contending that the trial court erred by entering such an award in favor of defendant Waffle House, Inc., without holding an evidentiary hearing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the award.

The record shows that Bell sued Waffle House after he was arrested following an altercation with a Waffle House waitress who alleged that Bell threw a plate at her. Pursuant to OCGA § 9-11-68, Waffle House tendered Bell an offer to settle the case for $25,000, but Bell rejected the offer, so Waffle House moved for summary judgment, which motion was granted by the trial court. Bell appealed that order, [331 Ga.App. 444] and this Court affirmed the judgment without opinion pursuant to Court of Appeals Rule 36.[1] Bell petitioned the Supreme Court of Georgia for certiorari to review that decision, and the Supreme Court unanimously denied his petition.[2]

Upon remittitur, Waffle House moved the trial court for an award of attorney fees pursuant to the offer of settlement provision in OCGA § 9-11-68 (b) (1). Waffle House attached exhibits showing that Bell had rejected its offer as well as an affidavit attesting to the amount of and reasonableness of legal fees and expenses incurred by Waffle House shown in attached billing records. Bell filed a two-page written response that reads in its entirety as follows:

Waffle House has failed to submit an affidavit for each attorney [for whom] it is seeking attorney fees. Waffle House has only submitted the affidavit of Robert Ingram. Waffle House has failed to submit the affidavits for Ryan Ingram, Shane Mayes, Tammi Brown and Angela H. Smith. " Each attorney for whose service[s] compensation is sought must provide admissible evidence of fees in the form of personal testimony, or through the testimony of the custodian of the applicable billing records, as an exception to the hearsay exclusion." Oden v. Legacy Ford-Mercury, 222 Ga.App. 666, 669 [(476 S.E.2d 43)] (1996). Because each attorney has not submitted an affidavit, Waffle House is not entitled to those attorney fees.
WHEREFORE, the Court should deny Waffle House's Motion for Attorney fees.

Bell did not challenge the reasonableness of the hourly rates or the time spent on the matter.

In reply, Waffle House argued that one affidavit from the lead attorney with personal knowledge of the case and billing was sufficient under the business records exception to the hearsay rule.

Thereafter, without holding a hearing, the trial court entered an order granting Waffle House's motion and awarding $27,276.37 in legal fees and expenses.[3] Bell filed this appeal, contending that the trial court erred by entering the award without a hearing.

[331 Ga.App. 445] OCGA § 9-11-68 (b) (1) provides as follows:

Page 134

If a defendant makes an offer of settlement [in accordance with the Code section] which is rejected by the plaintiff, the defendant shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees and expenses of litigation incurred by the defendant or on the defendant's behalf from the date of the rejection of the offer of settlement through the entry of judgment if the final judgment is one of no liability or the final judgment obtained by the plaintiff is less than 75 percent of such offer of settlement.

The statute requires the Court to award the payment of attorney fees and expenses of litigation upon receipt of proof that the judgment is one to which the provisions of the statute apply, but it is silent on whether or not a hearing is required.[4]

With respect to other statutes awarding attorney fees, such as OCGA § 9-15-14, the Supreme Court has held that even in the absence of a hearing requirement in the Uniform Superior Court Rules, " [a] hearing is required in order to enter an award of attorney fees. That is because an oral hearing gives the party opposing attorney fees an opportunity to confront and challenge testimony with regard to the need for, and value of, legal services." [5] Likewise, in the context of an award under OCGA § 14-2-1604, which contains an automatic fee award under certain conditions and also lacks an explicit hearing requirement, this Court has held that " [a] party opposing a claim for attorney fees has a basic right to confront and challenge testimony as to the value and need for legal services." [6]

Waffle House notes that OCGA § 9-11-68 (b) does not explicitly require a hearing, but another subsection, OCGA § 9-11-68 (e), does.[7] [331 Ga.App. 446] Therefore, it argues that the General Assembly did not intend for a hearing to be required here.[8] But even where the Code does not require hearings, Georgia's courts have required hearings because such an award must be supported by evidence-based factual findings.[9]

Pretermitting whether the trial court was required to hold a hearing under OCGA § 9-11-68 in this case, Bell waived the right to a hearing by his conduct. In his written response, Bell made no request for a hearing, he did not challenge the reasonableness of the hourly rates or the time spent on the matter, and he made only a procedural argument unrelated to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting Waffle House's motion.[10] The single issue raised by Bell -- i.e., that the affidavit was procedurally flawed -- did not require a hearing. Bell was given notice and an opportunity to respond to Waffle House's request for attorney fees, and if he intended to contest the reasonableness of those fees or

Page 135

the substance of Waffle House's evidence, he could have done so in his written response. In light of Bell's response, it was reasonable for the trial court to conclude that Bell did not contest the reasonableness of the fees sought and did not need a hearing testing the evidence supporting those fees.[11] There being no dispute as to the reasonableness of the fees,[12] the trial court [331 Ga.App. 447] did not err by ruling on Bell's legal argument and entering an award in favor of Waffle House without a hearing. Accordingly, because Bell makes no other challenge to the award on appeal, the award is affirmed.

Judgment affirmed.

Miller and Dillard, JJ., concur.


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