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Bailey v. Maner Builders Supply Co., LLC.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

February 28, 2019

BAILEY
v.
MANER BUILDERS SUPPLY COMPANY, LLC.

          DILLARD, C. J., MCFADDEN, P.J. and RICKMAN, J.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         This appeal challenges an award of attorney fees under OCGA § 9-15-14. Because the trial court failed to specify the conduct upon which the award was based, we must vacate the attorney fees award and remand the case for further proceedings.

         1. Facts and procedural posture.

         On September 28, 2017, the trial court ordered that Glen Bailey, for a period of two years, cease competing as a salesman and in other capacities with Maner Builders Supply Company, LLC. On November 22, 2017, Maner filed a motion for contempt, claiming that Bailey had violated the court's prior order by failing to cease competing with Maner. In the motion, Maner requested a contempt hearing and also asked for attorney fees, although no statutory basis for such fees was specified.

         A hearing on the contempt motion was held on February 2, 2018. During closing arguments, counsel for Maner requested, among other things, an award of attorney fees pursuant to OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b) or OCGA § 13-6-11. Counsel also submitted an affidavit claiming a total bill of $14, 327 in fees and $589 in costs. Counsel for Bailey challenged the claims for contempt and the request for attorney fees during his closing argument. At the end of the hearing, the trial judge orally announced that she was inclined to find Bailey in contempt for several, but not all, of the alleged violations of the court's previous non-compete order and that she would award the total amount of requested attorney fees and costs, but not paralegal fees.

         The trial court subsequently entered its final order finding that there was sufficient evidence to hold Bailey in contempt for several violations of the prior court order, but that there was not sufficient evidence to find him in contempt regarding two other alleged violations. The court's final order also awarded Maner all of the attorney fees and costs requested in a lump sum of $13, 304 pursuant to OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b).[1] Bailey appeals.

         2. Attorney fees award under OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b).

         Bailey challenges the award of attorney fees under OCGA § 9-15-14 (a) and (b).[2] We are unable to conduct any meaningful review of the award because the trial court failed to make necessary findings of fact.

Subsection (a) of OCGA § 9-15-14 requires an award of attorney fees when a party asserts 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. Subsection (b), among other things, gives discretion to a trial court to award attorney fees when a party brings or defends an action that lacked substantial justification. We will affirm an award under subsection (a) if there is any evidence to support it, while we review subsection (b) awards for abuse of discretion.

Shiv Aban, Inc. v. Ga. Dept. of Transp., 336 Ga.App. 804, 814-815 (2) (784 S.E.2d 134) (2016) (citations and punctuation omitted). Before awarding attorney fees under OCGA § 9-15-14, "[t]he trial court must conduct a hearing on a motion for attorney fees and make findings of fact that specify the conduct upon which the award is made." DeRossett Enterprises v. General Electric Capital Corp., 275 Ga.App. 728, 731 (4) (621 S.E.2d 755) (2005) (citation omitted). When a trial court makes an

award [of] such attorney fees and costs, it is incumbent upon the court to specify the conduct upon which the award is made. To permit meaningful appellate review of an award of fees and expenses, the trial court's order cannot be too vague and conclusory, such as where it fails to cite examples of conduct that authorize the award. The trial court need not cite specific testimony, argument of counsel, or any other specific factual reference in its order awarding fees under OCGA § 9-15-14; it is only required to specify the conduct upon which the award is made.

Cohen v. Rogers, 341 Ga.App. 146, 152 (2) (b) (798 S.E.2d 701) (2017) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         Here, the trial court's award of attorney fees failed to specify the conduct upon which the award was made under either subsection (a) or (b) of OCGA § 9-15-14. Rather than citing examples of the specific conduct which authorized the award under each of those subsections, the trial court merely made conclusory findings that there was "an absence of justiciable issue of law or fact and that Bailey willfully disregarded and disobeyed the [c]ourt's order without substantial justification[.]" When the trial court fails to make the required findings specifying the conduct upon which the award was based, "the fees ...


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