One of the most frequently asked questions when a party is faced with litigation is whether or not they will be able to recover attorney fees. The general rule is that attorney fees cannot be awarded unless there is a contract provision or statute permitting their award. An exception to this rule is if there is a finding of bad faith on the part of one of the parties, which is a difficult standard to meet.
The rules in an arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) changed this general rule. Under AAA Rule 48 (d)(ii) “[t]he award of the arbitrator may include an award of attorneys’ fees if all parties have requested such an award or it is authorized by law or their arbitration agreement.” (Emphasis added.) This means that if the parties file a demand for arbitration on the AAA Demand for Arbitration form and check the box for attorneys fees and the opposing party files an answer to the demand on the AAA Answering Statement form and also checks the box for attorneys fees or in its answer demands attorney fees, they can be awarded by the arbitrator. At least one state court has determined that this is because both parties have “agreed” to the award of attorney fees.
Under the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4), “An arbitrator may award attorney’s fees and costs to a prevailing party.” This is statutory authority granting the power of the arbitrator to award attorney fees. There is no similar provision in Mississippi’s general arbitration statutes found at Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-1 et seq.
The important point to take away from this information is if both parties demand attorney fees, be prepared to accept the risk of not prevailing on the merits of your case and being compelled to pay attorney fees even where the contract does not require such payment. When you negotiate a contract, know what any arbitration clause in the contract provides and consider whether you need to modify it to write out AAA Rule (d)(ii) and/or Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4) to limit the award of attorney fees.