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NMI Supreme Court reverses attorney’s fees and costs award

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(NMI Judiciary) — On June 15, 2020, the local Supreme Court issued its opinion in Joeten Motor Co. v. Leon Guerrero, reversing the trial court’s judgment reducing Joeten’s requested amounts of attorney’s fees and costs.

Alicia DLG Leon Guerrero purchased a car from Joeten Motor Company and signed a contract stating she would pay for the car in several installments. When she failed to make some payments, Joeten sued to recover them. After Leon Guerrero failed to answer the complaint, Joeten requested particular amounts in attorney’s fees and costs. After a hearing, the trial court awarded attorney’s fees and costs in amounts less than those requested. The trial court concluded that the case should have been filed as a small claims case, in which costs are lower than costs in civil cases. Joeten appealed.

Joeten asserted that the trial court wrongly found the requested attorney’s fees to be unreasonable. It also argued that the trial court incorrectly reduced costs because the court did not give a reason for doing so and ignored Joeten’s choice to file the case as a civil case and award higher costs.

The local Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision to award attorney’s fees and costs lower than the requested amounts and reinstated the original amounts. The high court found that attorney’s fees and costs can be reasonably found in a default judgment fee schedule and a court filing fee schedule. By using the 1992 fee schedule, the trial court can save time and resources awarding attorney’s fees because they will not have to review the many default judgment award requests. In contrast, the trial court’s order, which said the fee schedule could not be used in cases like this and that a different test should be used to make sure attorney’s fees were fair and fitting, was an improper use of the court’s power.

The high court’s full opinion is available at http://cnmilaw.org/pdf/supreme/2020-MP-14.pdf

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