Virginia Contract Law – Attorney’s Fees and Prevailing Party Language

Virginia Courts typically follow what is known as the “American Rule” with respect to whether or not a party will be awarded its fees and costs, including reasonable attorney fees, upon a successful outcome in litigation.   The “American Rule” dictates that each party is responsible for their own fees and costs for the litigation, regardless of the litigation’s outcome. The exception to this rule is that a party may be awarded their fees and costs, including reasonable attorney fees,  if such relief is (i) provided for by statute, (ii) for malicious conduct or bad faith, or (iii) specifically agreed to by the parties in a contract; however, the determination and award of those fees and costs is often within the discretion of the Court.

Litigation costs and attorney fees provisions are common boilerplate provisions added to most commercial contracts, especially given that protecting and enforcing your contractual rights can be particularly expensive.   In some cases, attorneys’ fees awarded by a Court may be more than the relief provided in the underlying claim(s).  As a result, it is important to understand how these provisions can be shaped and interpreted in a contract under Virginia law.

Let’s look at the following language common in a fee section of a contract for hypothetical purposes:

in the event of a dispute between the parties arising from or to enforce the Agreement, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover its reasonable attorney’s fees.”

On the surface this seems fairly straight-forward the winner of the lawsuit has the opportunity for the Court to award it their reasonable attorney fees.

But, what does it mean to prevail?  In Virginia, “prevailing” simply means that the Court awarded a judgment in your favor, and this can lead to some unusual outcomes.

For the purposes of a second hypothetical, let’s assume you are suing a customer in a breach of contract claim for $50,000, specifically for non-payment.  Let’s assume further that the case goes all the way to trial, and the jury returns a verdict awarding you only $500 out of the $50,000 sought. Although, this may not feel like a win; technically, you have prevailed and could be entitled to recoup your costs and fees, including reasonable attorney’s fees.   In an effort to avoid these types of outcomes, some attorneys add language to a fee provision in a contract that reads that a prevailing party is only to be awarded fees if they are “substantially prevailing.”

Another issue that routinely arises in fee provisions is when the provision is drafted to unilaterally award attorney fees for one party, but not the other.  For example, sample language may read, “Company A is entitled to its reasonable attorney fees in any action to which it prevails in enforcing the Agreement.”

What happens if Company B prevails?  Is Company B entitled to its attorney fees if it prevails?    This can be a difficult and unexpected problem for many clients who did not read the contract carefully or pay attention to this provision.  Under Virginia contract law, this provision could be enforceable and may not be interpreted by the Court as a prevailing party provision.  The Supreme Court has not specifically addressed this issue; however, it is better to not have to go to Court to find out.

We strongly encourage anyone drafting or reviewing a contract to speak with an experienced and knowledgeable contract law attorney.  Although many of these terms may appear “boilerplate,” a skilled contract attorney can make alterations to the language that could have significant implications to your legal rights.

What Is The Enforceability Of A Contract With Errors?

Clients routinely ask our Virginia Contract Lawyers if a poorly crafted document is enforceable, whether because of mistakes, errors, typos, or language that just does not make any sense.  The easiest answer here is, “maybe.”  However, “maybe” is not much assistance to anyone in this type of situation.  Whether or not a contract is enforceable can have significant consequences on the parties and people involved.  A skilled contract attorney can assist clients in navigating these issues and seeing that your legal rights are protected and enforced.

It would take a review of the contract itself and likely a consultation in order for a contract attorney to properly and effectively determine and advise you in a contract enforceability situation.  With that being said, there are some guiding principles and understandings that can assist you in determining the severity of the issues pertaining to the enforceability of the contract. Understanding some of these items will assist you in providing your contract attorney with helpful information that can allow them to more efficiently assess the situation. 

             If the fundamental issue that you are concerned with is enforceability, then you are likely concerned that the very purpose for which the contract was drafted, or at the very least a provision of the contract, is in jeopardy.  You are either very happy about this, meaning you do not want the contract or that provision to be enforceable, or very upset about it, meaning you want to be able to enforce the contract or that provision of the contract. 

 The nature and extent of the error(s), poor language, or mistake(s) can make a big difference with regards to enforceability.  There is not necessarily a definitive line that would make the contract unenforceable, as it depends on the specific facts of the case and the terms and language of the contract.  For example, lack of clarity on the date of delivery of goods or services could be a small issue in one case or could be the very essence of the contract in another.  If it goes to the heart and core of the agreement and understanding of the agreement between the parties, then the problem may have a greater likelihood of leading to unenforceability of the contract as a whole. 

               Another major issue in contract enforceability is to consider is what was agreed to in a prior letter of intent or memorandum of understanding, if one even exists, which led to the contract being drafted.  Although you may not be able to utilize these in many cases where one party is trying to enforce the contract against another, they can be indicative of what the parties were trying to accomplish. 

        In addition to pre contract drafting considerations, another critical issue is whether or not the parties have begun to perform under the contract.  Some key items to consider are:

  • How substantial was the performance?
  • Did the performance completed thus far comply with the other terms in the contract?
  • If performance departed from the terms of the contract, did the non-performance have a legal excuse?   

              The analysis here can begin to become more complex and this is why understanding the facts of your particular case are critical to understanding the legal rights of the parties.  When working with a Virginia Contract Lawyer it is helpful to provide them with any and all facts that are relevant to understanding what the parties have done under the contract.  If you have questions regarding the enforceability of a contract in Virginia, it is strongly advised that you do not wait to contact legal counsel.

Virginia Contract Interpretation: Defined Terms

Whether lengthy and extremely sophisticated or short and straightforward, contracts are simply the expression of two or more parties.  In many cases, a skilled contract drafter can make even the most complex provisions of a contract understandable.  However, some contracts can seem daunting and complex to parties that are not exposed to them regularly.  In fact, if drafted poorly, even for attorneys some contract language is archaic and difficult to understand; assuming it makes enough sense to even be understood at all.   Generally, however, many people who are unfamiliar with reading or interpreting contracts struggle and find them difficult to understand.  Oftentimes this comes from basic misunderstandings about the way that contracts are intended to be read, which can often lead to poorly drafted agreements by inexperienced parties or attorneys who do not fully understand what the parties are trying to express in writing.

The first thing to understand is that in a contract defined terms reduce length and ambiguity in a contract by replacing lengthy language or an explanation, usually a definition, with a single term or short phrase.  Defined terms should be capitalized and should remain capitalized in a contract when used in that context.  For example, if “Services” are defined to mean and refer to something specifically, such as ‘computer programming and IT support,’ then for the duration of the contract, in place of ‘computer programming and IT support,’ “Services” should be used with a capitalized “S.”  Without such capitalization, ‘services’ could be read ambiguously or with plain meaning and may not capture the expression of the parties. Therefore, it is important to know what the definitions are in a contract, so that you can understand the meaning of the provisions and how that particular definition or similar language is being used.   It is equally important for a contract drafter to use appropriate definitions where applicable and to use the language consistently.  A skilled drafter or contract attorney will use these definitions as a tool to tell the contract’s story and to keep everything clear.  However, contract drafters can quickly make a contract provision complex with many defined terms used in a single expression.  For example, “only Sales made in the Territory by Builder or Sub-Contractor for Services or Goods Delivered will Costs be deducted.”  With so many defined terms used at once the sentence could easily have complex results and restrictions based on the structural combination and use of those particular terms.  Therefore, it is incumbent on the drafter or contract attorney to fully understand the implications of defined terms and how they are being used, especially if combined with other defined terms.

The second important thing to understand is that if the term is not specifically defined, then, pursuant to Virginia contract law, “words that the parties used are normally given their, usual, ordinary, and popular meaning.”  Preferred Sys. Solutions, Inc. v. GP Consulting, LLC, 284 Va. 382, 732 S.E.2d 676 (2012).  Consequently, if the word is not defined within the agreement, you can read the contract to understand it exactly as the word would normally be used.  Many people are worried that the language or the words themselves contain pitfalls or traps outside of their normal understanding in a contract.  This is generally not the case when there are no specifically defined terms in the agreement.   Conversely, this means that the words will not take on specific meaning if you do not define them to mean that.  Great care must be taken by contract drafters to be certain that they are fully capturing the understanding of the parties or their client’s wishes.  If the parties are using the words in an unusual way, then it may be best to specifically define them.  It is also important to understand that under Virginia contract law, typically the contract is bound by the four corners of the document, meaning, no outside language or other documents, including email exchanges, will be used to interpret or explain the parties’ intentions, especially if the document contains a superseding clause.  This is why it is so important that the contract capture the parties’ understandings fully.  However, the ‘four corner’ approach along with the superseding clause is a lengthy topic with some exceptions that we will address in a future blog post when discussing Virginia’s ‘parol evidence rule.’

A third important issue to understand about reading or drafting a contract is that pursuant to Virginia contract law, “[n]o word or clause in a contract will be treated as meaningless if a reasonable meaning can be given to it, and there is a presumption that the parties have not used words needlessly.” Id.  This means that not understanding a clause does not necessarily render it meaningless.  Therefore, it is extremely important to understand the provision, because there is a presumption that those words were not needlessly added to the contract and will be interpreted to have significance and meaning as a result.  Additionally, it highlights the dangers of inexperienced drafters using duplicative language and provisions.  Such inexperienced drafters may attempt to provide a “concrete” expression or be “extra cautious,’ but they may inadvertently provide added significance or meaning to the provision or clause unnecessarily, which could ultimately change the parties’ intentions.

Sales of Goods vs. Services under Virginia Contract Law: Importance of Reducing a Service Contract to Writing

As in many jurisdictions throughout the country, the sale of goods and services in Virginia are treated differently and are recognized under completely separate legal, frameworks.  Although implementation is not mandatory, the Uniform Commercial Code (the “UCC”) is a recommendation of laws that should be adopted by all jurisdictions in the United States for uniformity regarding the sales and leases of goods as well as many other commercial transactions. Under Virginia law, the sale of goods is codified in great detail in the Virginia Code, which is a direct result of Virginia’s adoption of the UCC.

Virginia’s Uniform Commercial Code (the “VUCC”) defines “Goods” to mean all things (including specially manufactured goods) which are movable at the time of identification to the contract for sale (§ 8.2-105) other than the money in which the price is to be paid, investment securities (Title 8.8A) and things in action. “Goods” also includes the unborn young of animals and growing crops and other identified things attached to realty as described in the section on goods to be severed from realty (§ 8.2-107). Unfortunately, the VUCC does not cover “Services” and rather leaves such up to judicial interpretation, application of various other statutes, and common law rights established through case law.

The Virginia Antitrust Act (“VAA”) does shed some light on the definition of “Services,” at least with respect to the prohibition on restraints of trade and monopolistic practices that act or tend to act to decrease competition in the Commonwealth of Virginia (§ 59.1-9.2). Specifically, the VAA defines “Services” to include any activity that is performed in whole or in part for the purpose of financial gain, including but not limited to personal service, rental, leasing or licensing for use (§ 59.1-9.3). It important to note that this definition is not listed under the VUCC and the distinction is important. The more detailed codification of the sale of goods under the VUCC allows for more consistency in how contractual issues regarding goods are resolved in a Virginia law applied contract dispute and the Virginia case law reflected is therefore very consistent. This can be very helpful in a breach of contract situation, as the rules and procedures are often well defined.

As a result of Virginia’s thorough codification of contracts with respect to the sales of goods, it is important when drafting or negotiating a contract for the sale of goods to be sure to understand the applicable statute, especially as the drafting party, in order to understand when the contract is departing from the statute.  In most circumstances, as long as a contract for the sale of goods is reasonable and not for the sale of illegal goods or an illegal purpose, the contract can somewhat depart from the statutory rules and guidelines. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the implications of deviance as it could restrict or lessen a party’s rights in an event of a breach of the contract or other contractual dispute.

As the legal framework for analyzing service based contracts are often interpreted through case law, with little statutory guidance, Virginia case law has some variance with issues relating to partial performance of the service contracted for under an agreement, which makes it especially important to reduce a service based contract to writing. This can especially be problematic given the large number of verbal contracts or “handshake” agreements, which are often quite prevalent among and between services based organizations. Such agreement types, considering Virginia’s lack of codification regarding service contracts, can lead to unnecessary disputes between parties because it is not always clear to these parties what remedies exist and who is at fault.   In addition, without statutory language the parties are often forced to pay for an attorney on the back-end to analyze the facts of the situation and the case law, as that information is not as easily determinable on their own, which leads to additional costs and expense for the parties involved.

In some cases, services based organizations mistakenly believe they have more protection than they do.  For example, construction firms and contractors may wish or try to rely on something similar to the “cure” language found in the UCC or VUCC (§8.2-508; §8.2-510) in an attempt to mitigate or eliminate damages arising out of a service based breach of contract or other contractual dispute. However, such organizations or individuals fail to realize that such statutory language only applies to the sale of goods and not the services that they contracted to perform.  As a result, there is a heightened urgency for service based agreements to be reduced to writing as there is little statutory language that can be relied upon.  The minimal expense to formalize such an agreement at the onset can save much headache and future expense.