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Hernandez v. Edmonds Memory Care, LLC

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

October 21, 2019


          LEACH, J.

         Edmonds Memory Care LLC (EMC) appeals the superior court's attorney fees award to five laborers who sued EMC after filing a lien claim for unpaid wages against its property. EMC paid these wages after receiving copies of the lien and complaint from the laborers' attorney. RCW 60.04.181(3), the construction lien statute's attorney fee provision, provides a court with discretion to award the "prevailing party in the action" reasonable attorney fees. EMC asserts that the laborers cannot be the "prevailing party in the action" because it did not dispute their wage claims and the court did not award a judgment for them. The laborers claim they are the "prevailing party in the action" because they achieved their intended result, payment of their wages. Based on the ordinary meaning of "prevail" and "action" and the statute's requirement that it be liberally construed in favor of the parties it protects, we conclude that the statute authorized the superior court to award the laborers attorney fees. We affirm.


         In December 2016 and January 2017, EMC developed the Cedar Creek senior housing project (project) on its property. Alejandro Sandoval and his company, Sandoval Construction, (together Sandoval) subcontracted with general contractor Koelsch Construction to provide framing labor. Between December 26 and January 9, Cesar Hernandez, Jose Luis Mendoza, Miguel Morales, Angel Solis, and Francisco Chavez did framing labor for Sandoval but were not paid for the days they worked during this two-week period. So these laborers then stopped working on the project.

         Crew leader Mendoza tried to contact Sandoval many times about payment. The few times that he made contact with Sandoval, Sandoval responded that he would pay the crew within a few days. Sandoval never paid the laborers. When Mendoza told Sandoval that he would have to take legal action, Sandoval threatened that Mendoza would "get in a lot of trouble" if Mendoza complained to the Department of Labor & Industries (Department) or consulted an attorney. Mendoza also spoke with Koelsch's project superintendent, Scott, about the laborers' unpaid wages. Scott told Mendoza that Koelsch had already paid Sandoval for most of the work and the laborers would have to talk to Sandoval about their unpaid wages.

         Mendoza stated that he and the other crew members are from Mexico and do not speak English well. They know little about the legal system. The laborers learned about their lawyers from friends in construction who had previously received legal help.

         On February 9, 2017, the laborers, aided by counsel, filed a lien against EMC's property. On February 20, the laborers' counsel sent EMC copies of the lien and the complaint to be filed to start this lawsuit. They claimed $6, 605.10 in unpaid wages. Counsel filed the complaint on February 24. On March 3, EMC sent the laborers' counsel a check for the lien amount, along with a letter thanking counsel for giving EMC notice of the laborers' claims and stating that EMC was not aware of them before counsel's notification. On March 4, the laborers' counsel asked that EMC pay $2, 714.00 in legal expenses. EMC offered $500.00 to settle this matter, which counsel rejected.

         On March 8, EMC asked that the laborers release their lien to prevent it from impairing the project's financing. EMC and the laborers' counsel signed a "Lien Release and Security Agreement," in which EMC agreed to be personally liable for any attorney fees assessed in exchange for the laborers' agreement to file a lien release:

In consideration of the lien claimants' tendering of an executed lien release, Edmonds Memory Care LLC agrees that it will substitute itself for the liened property and be personally liable if and to the extent that the court in Hernandez v. Edmonds Memory Care LLC rules that attorney fees and/or costs should be awarded in favor of the lien claimants/plaintiffs in that case.

         In May, the laborers filed a combined fee and summary judgment request. They asked for $8, 206 in incurred legal expenses plus future reply and oral argument expenses. The superior court awarded the laborers $7, 000 in attorney fees, relying on RCW 60.04.181;[1] it found that the laborers "are the prevailing parties in an action because they filed their complaint in the instant action and recovered 100% of the lien wages sought in their complaint." EMC sought reconsideration. The superior court denied reconsideration and further reasoned,

The Court takes issue with [EMC's] argument that there is no "prevailing party." While uncontested, this does not change the simple fact that [the laborers] did "win." The Court believes that often the filing of a complaint helps to focus parties on their disputes. Whether the case is actively contested affects the discretion regarding the amount of fees to award but still here, [the laborers] "prevailed."

         The court denied reconsideration "without ruling on [the laborers'] alternative requested relief of summary judgment on the lien claim."

         EMC appeals.


         The laborers claim they are entitled to attorney fees based on the plain language of RCW 60.04.181(3), the legislative purpose of chapter 60.04 RCW, and policy considerations. EMC responds that the trial court's attorney fees award is inequitable. We address these arguments in turn and affirm the trial court.

         Plain Language

         EMC claims that the plain language of RCW 60.04.181(3), providing a court with discretion to award attorney fees to the "prevailing party in the action," means a party cannot be the prevailing party unless another party contested its claims and the court entered a favorable judgment on the claims. The laborers respond that this language requires only that the prevailing party achieve its intended result.[2] We agree with the laborers.

         Statutory interpretation presents an issue of law that this court reviews de novo.[3] Who is a "prevailing party" presents a mixed question of law and fact that this court reviews under the error of law standard.[4] "The purpose of statutory interpretation is to determine the intent of the legislature."[5] When interpreting a statute, a reviewing court first looks to its plain language.[6] In the absence of a statutory definition, this court gives a term "its plain and ordinary meaning ascertained from a standard dictionary."[7] This court also discerns plain meaning from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute that includes the provision, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.[8] This court "considers the statute within the entire scheme of other statutes, presuming the legislature enacts legislation in light of existing law."[9] If a statute's language is plain, a reviewing court will determine the legislature's intent from the words of the statute itself.[10]

         "Chapter 60.04 RCW creates a cause of action for suppliers of labor, materials, or equipment to a construction project." Courts often refer to the statute as the "construction lien statute."[11] Here we consider RCW 60.04.181(3), which provides courts with discretion to award attorney fees and costs to prevailing parties in lien actions:

The court may allow the prevailing party in the action, whether plaintiff or defendant, as part of the costs of the action, the moneys paid for recording the claim of lien, costs of title report, bond costs, and attorneys' fees and necessary expenses incurred by the attorney in the superior court, court of appeals, supreme court, or arbitration, as the court or arbitrator deems reasonable.

         EMC correctly states that the superior court did not enter an affirmative judgment in favor of the laborers because it did not decide the merits of their wage claims; it entered the judgment awarding the laborers only attorney fees and costs. EMC maintains, "There does not appear to be precedent in Washington where a court has ever considered an award of costs under RCW 60.04.181(3) to a party where no underlying claims were ever adjudicated." The laborers do not contest this. But we note that EMC does not cite any case reversing an award of attorney fees under RCW 60.04.181(3), or any similarly worded statute, because the court did not award a judgment on an underlying claim to the party recovering fees.

         A. Ordinary Meaning

         First, the laborers observe that the legislature did not define "prevailing party in the action" but contend that the relevant dictionary definitions show that the "prevailing party" means the party who obtained its intended result. Webster's Third New International Dictionary definitions of "prevail" include "(2) to gain victory by virtue of strength or superiority," (3) "to be or become effective or effectual," and (4) "to urge one successfully."[12] Black's Law Dictionary definitions of "prevail" include (1) "[t]o obtain the relief sought in an action; to win in a lawsuit" and (2) "[t]o be commonly accepted or predominant."[13] Webster's definitions of "action" include (1) "a legal proceeding by which one demands or enforces one's right in a court of justice" and (2) "a judicial proceeding for the enforcement or protection of a right, the redress or prevention of a wrong."[14]

         The laborers contend that these definitions show that they were the "prevailing party in the action" because their lien and the lawsuit they filed to enforce it produced the intended result, payment for their labor. They are in a better economic position after starting their lawsuit than they were beforehand.

         EMC does not contest the laborers' assertions about the ordinary meaning of "prevail" and "action." It does not identify any dictionary definitions that support its position about the meaning of "prevailing party in the action." And it provided the laborers with their intended result, money for their labor. We agree with the laborers that the ordinary meaning of "prevailing party in the action" does not require that a court have awarded a party a judgment for that party to have prevailed.

         B. ...

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