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Civil Practice – Punitive Damages Claims – Attorney’s Fee Award – Frivolous Claims – Insufficient Findings – Apportionment

Holding: The trial court found that it was frivolous for defendants to seek punitive damages in relation to their counterclaims for defamation of title and trespass, but the trial court’s only related findings were that the plaintiff-contractor was entitled to file a notice of lien and that plaintiff’s claim of lien was filed outside of the period allowed under G.S. Chapter 44A. These findings are insufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that it was appropriate to award plaintiff attorney’s fees under G.S.§ 1D-45.

We vacate the award of attorney’s fees and remand.

Defendants also argue that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding attorney’s fees for the entirety of the proceedings as opposed to only those expenses incurred as a result of defending against the punitive damages claims. The trial court found that “the counterclaims are inseparable from the claim of punitive damages” and that “the time billed and the costs set forth . . . are fair and reasonable within the Haywood County Community.” The trial court’s finding that the compensatory damages and punitive damages claims are “inseparable” lacks any explanation regarding how or whether plaintiff’s claims and defendants’ counterclaims seeking punitive damages are “inextricably interwoven” and “arise from a common nucleus of operative fact.”

Messer v. Pollack (Lawyers Weekly No. 012-022-18, 7 pp.) (Lucy Inman, J.) Appealed from Haywood County District Court (Kristina Earwood, J.) Russell McLean III for plaintiff; J. Scott Taylor for defendants. N.C. App. Unpub.

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