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Workman v. RL BB ACQ I-GA CVL, LLC

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 21, 2018

WORKMAN et al
v.
RL BB ACQ I-GA CVL, LLC et al.

          Hunstein, Justice.

         Following the Court of Appeals' decision in RL BB ACQ I-GA CVL, LLC v. Workman, 341 Ga.App. 127 (798 S.E.2d 677) (2017), we granted certiorari to consider two questions: whether attorney fees and costs are available under OCGA § 9-15-14 for conduct that occurs during the course of post-judgment discovery, and whether an entity is barred from seeking sanctions under OCGA § 9-11-37 by failing to request sanctions at the time it sought and obtained a protective order under OCGA § 9-11-26. We answer the first question in the affirmative, the second in the negative, and, in so doing, we affirm in part and reverse in part the decision of the Court of Appeals.

         The relevant facts, as correctly summarized by the Court of Appeals, are as follows:

[A]fter RL BB ACQ I-GA CVL, LLC ("[Appellee]"), obtained a $1.9 million judgment against Cooper Village, LLC, and Howard Workman (collectively, the "Judgment Debtors"), the company served post-judgment discovery requests on Howard's wife, Honey C. Workman, and 16 separate LLCs managed by Honey and in which Howard had an ownership interest. Honey and the [Workman] LLCs [(collectively, the "Appellants")] limited their discovery responses to information and documents relating to or evidencing assets belonging to or transferred from the Judgment Debtors and/or transactions involving the Judgment Debtors. [Appellee] then served additional discovery requests on Fidelity Bank, seeking numerous documents relating to any account held at [the bank] by Cooper Village, Howard, Honey, and/or any of the LLCs. [Appellants] sought and obtained a protective order that limited the discovery [Appellee] could receive from Fidelity. Approximately six weeks [later] . . . [Appellants] filed a motion seeking costs, attorney fees, and sanctions under OCGA §§ 9-15-14, 9-11-26 . . . and 9-11-37. Following a hearing, the trial court granted that motion and entered an order requiring [Appellee] and its attorneys to pay the fees and costs incurred by [Appellants] in moving for the protective order . . . and in pursuing their motion for sanctions.
. . . .
Specifically, the trial court found that [Appellee's] conduct in serving broad post-judgment discovery on Fidelity and in opposing the motion for the protective order violated OCGA § 9-15-14 . . . and that regardless of the merits of [Appellee's] opposition to the protective order, OCGA § 9-11-26 and OCGA § 9-11-37 required the court to award [Appellants], as the prevailing movants, the costs and attorney fees they incurred in pursuing the protective order.

Workman, 341 Ga.App. at 127-128.

         The Court of Appeals reversed that portion of the order awarding fees pursuant to OCGA § 9-15-14, concluding that the statute speaks only to conduct occurring during the course of a "lawsuit, " which concludes at judgment, and, thus, does not apply to post-judgment discovery proceedings, see Workman, 341 Ga. at 134-135; the court also noted, without discussion, that OCGA § 9-15-14 does not apply to non-parties, id. at 135, n. 8. With respect to the fee award made pursuant to OCGA § 9-11-37 (a) (4) (A), the Court of Appeals questioned whether Appellants' "failure to request their expenses at the time they sought the protective order bars them from seeking those expenses by way of a separate motion, filed more than 40 days after the protective order was entered, " and remanded the case to the trial court to consider the waiver issue. Workman, 341 Ga. at 140. In August 2017, this Court granted the certiorari petition filed by Appellants, asking the parties to address both the application of OCGA § 9-15-14 to post-judgment discovery, as well as the procedure by which an entity seeks expenses under OCGA § 9-11-37.[1]

         We must now delve into the text of a number of statutory provisions, and, in so doing, we are mindful that we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said

what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its "plain and ordinary meaning, " we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172-173 (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013). Where the statutory text is "clear and unambiguous, " we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning ends. See id. at 173. The issues before us are purely legal and, thus, are reviewed de novo. See Expedia, Inc. v. City of Columbus, 285 Ga. 684 (4) (681 S.E.2d 122) (2009).

         1. The trial court awarded attorney fees under OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b), which state, in relevant part, as follows:

(a)In any civil action in any court of record of this state, reasonable and necessary attorney's fees and expenses of litigation shall be awarded to any party against whom another party has asserted a claim, defense, or other position with respect to which there existed such a complete absence of any justiciable issue of law or fact that it could not be reasonably believed that a court would accept the asserted claim, defense, or other position. Attorney's fees and expenses so awarded shall be assessed against the party asserting such claim, defense, or other position, or against that party's attorney, or against both in such manner as is just.
(b)The court may assess reasonable and necessary attorney's fees and expenses of litigation in any civil action in any court of record if, upon the motion of any party or the court itself, it finds that an attorney or party brought or defended an action, or any part thereof, that lacked substantial justification or that the action, or any part thereof, was interposed for delay or harassment, or if it finds that an attorney or party unnecessarily expanded the proceeding by other improper conduct, including, but not limited to, abuses of discovery procedures available under Chapter 11 of this title, the "Georgia Civil Practice Act."

Id. As reflected in the first sentence of each subsection, OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b) permit the recovery of fees and expenses in "any civil action." (Emphasis supplied.) OCGA § 9-15-14. The Court of Appeals interpreted this phrase to mean a "lawsuit, " and reasoned that, because a lawsuit concludes at judgment, the phrase "civil action" did not encompass post-judgment discovery. Though we must strictly construe the language of this statute, see Reeves v.Upson Regional Medical Center, 315 Ga.App. 582, 586, n. 7 (726 S.E.2d 544) ...


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