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AllianceOne Receivables Mgmt., Inc. v. Lewis

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

May 8, 2014

AllianceOne Receivables Management, Inc., Respondent ,
v.
William Carl Lewis, Jr. et al., Appellants

Argued June 11, 2013.

Reconsideration denied July 16, 2014.

Appeal from Spokane District Court. 2680702. Honorable Brad Chinn, Commissioner.

Michael D. Kinkley (of Michael D. Kinkley PS ); Lara A. Wilson (of Kirkpatrick & Startzel PS ); and Kirk D. Miller (of Kirk D. Miller PS ), for appellants.

K.C. Hawthorne and Kevin Underwood (of AllianceOne, Inc. ); and Philip A. Talmadge and Sidney C. Tribe (of Talmadge Kirkpatrick ), for respondent.

AUTHOR: Justice Mary E. Fairhurst. WE CONCUR: Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, Justice Susan Owens, Justice Debra L. Stephens, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud. AUTHOR: Justice Charles W. Johnson. WE CONCUR: Justice Charles K. Wiggins, Justice Steven C. Gonzá lez, James M. Johnson, Justice Pro Tem.

OPINION

Page 905

[180 Wn.2d 391] Fairhurst, J.

¶ 1 AllianceOne Receivables Management Inc. instituted a collections action against William Carl Lewis Jr. and then voluntarily dismissed it. Lewis claims that he is entitled to attorney fees as the " prevailing party" under RCW 4.84.250 and .270 since under RCW 4.84.270 a defendant is a prevailing party when the plaintiff " recovers nothing." The district court denied Lewis' fee request, holding that there is no prevailing party for the purposes of an award of attorney fees when the plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the action. We affirm and hold that there must be a final judgment before attorney fees can be made available to the prevailing party under RCW 4.84.250 and .270. When a defendant requests fees under these statutes, the court should apply a three-factor test: (1) the damages sought must be equal to or less than $ 10,000, (2) there must be an entry of judgment, and (3) the defendant must be deemed the prevailing party. Here, there was no judgment because AllianceOne voluntarily dismissed its claim against Lewis. Without a judgment, there is no prevailing party. Lewis was not entitled to attorney fees upon dismissal at the district court, nor is he entitled to an award of attorney fees on appeal.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2 The facts in this case are generally not disputed. AllianceOne filed a collection suit against Lewis for three low dollar claims totaling $ 550.77, plus attorney fees. AllianceOne voluntarily dismissed two of the three claims, leaving one remaining claim totaling $ 272.67, which Lewis claimed he had already paid in full. After further proceedings, AllianceOne filed a motion for voluntary dismissal of the remaining claim without prejudice and without costs to [180 Wn.2d 392] either party. Lewis did not object to the dismissal of the claim but, since he had incurred attorney fees in the matter, he objected to dismissing

Page 906

the claim without costs. Lewis argued that he was the " prevailing party" under RCW 4.84.250 and .270 because AllianceOne recovered nothing in the suit.

¶ 3 The district court initially denied Lewis' request for attorney fees, relying on our decision in Wachovia SBA Lending, Inc. v. Kraft, 165 Wn.2d 481, 494, 200 P.3d 683 (2009), where we held that a final judgment must be entered for a defendant to be a prevailing party under RCW 4.84.330. Upon reconsideration, the district court affirmed the denial on different grounds, noting that since Wachovia interpreted a different statute than the one at issue in this case, it was not controlling. The district court noted that there is a split of authority in the Court of Appeals on this issue but it chose to follow Cork Insulation Sales Co. v. Torgeson, 54 Wn.App. 702, 775 P.2d 970 (1989), and Beckman v. Wilcox, 96 Wn.App. 355, 979 P.2d 890 (1999), from Divisions Two and Three. The district court held that " a CRLJ 41 voluntary dismissal does not effectuate costs and attorney fees." Second Am. Designation of Clerk's Papers (Decision on Recons. Mot. (May 4, 2012) at 4). In light of the split authority, we granted Lewis' motion for direct review. We affirm the district court.

II. ISSUES

¶ 4 1. Whether a defendant can be a prevailing party under RCW 4.84.250 and .270 when a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the case.

¶ 5 2. Whether either party is entitled to attorney fees on appeal under RCW 4.84.290.

[180 Wn.2d 393] III. ANALYSIS

A. " Prevailing party" under RCW 4.84.250 and .270

¶ 6 The meaning of a statute is a question of law reviewed de novo. [1]State v. Breazeale, 144 Wn.2d 829, 837, 31 P.3d 1155 (2001); State v. J.M., 144 Wn.2d 472, 480, 28 P.3d 720 (2001). The court's objective is to ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent. J.M., 144 Wn.2d at 480. The starting point is always the statute's plain language, which may be discerned " 'from all that the Legislature has said in the statute and related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question.'" State v. J.P., 149 Wn.2d 444, 450, 69 P.3d 318 (2003) (quoting Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 11, 43 P.3d 4 (2002)). The court considers a statute within the context of the entire statutory scheme to determine the plain meaning. Williams v. Tilaye, 174 Wn.2d 57, 63, 272 P.3d 235 (2012) (citing Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 11-12); see alsoITT Rayonier, Inc. v. Dalman, 122 Wn.2d 801, 807, 863 P.2d 64 (1993) (A term in a ...


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