There are two new proposed laws that if passed would limit the amount of attorney’s fees that could be awarded to a tenant that has sued his/her landlord for violation of ATCP 134 to 3 times the amount of compensatory damages in Wisconsin. The proposed legislation (Special Session Assembly Bill 12 & Special Session Senate Bill 12) was introduced by the committee on Senate Organization and the Committee on Assembly Organization at the request of Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rich Zipperer (R) and
Representative Robin Voss (R).
Currently if a tenant sues his landlord for a violation of ATCP 134 – which typically is due to the landlord’s alleged improper withholding of the tenant’s security deposit – and prevails, the court must award the tenant double damages, the costs of the lawsuit, and the tenant’s reasonable attorney’s fees. In almost every instance, the tenant’s reasonable attorney’s fees are much larger than the compensatory damages awarded.
In the United States we follow what is referred to as the American Rule which states that a person pays for their own attorney’s fees regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit. This is very different from the English Rule, which is followed in England, which requires the losing party to pay for the prevailing party’s attorney’s fees in addition to their own.
Despite following the American Rule in the United States, there are certain situations in which a state or federal statute will allow for the shifting of one’s attorney’s fees to th other party. These statutes are referred to as fee shifting statutes. Sec. 100.20(5) of the Wisconsin Statutes is an example of a specific type of fee shifting statute, called the private Attorney General statute, which requires that a landlord that has been found to have violated ATCP 134, to pay his tenant two times the tenant’s compensatory damages and the tenant’s reasonable attorney’s fees.
It is argued that the private Attorney General statute, which is codified as sec. 100.20 (5), Wis. Stats., has many purposes, such as: (1) it encourages a tenant that is damaged financially by the acts of their landlord to file a lawsuit to enforce their rights even if the alleged damages are small, (2) it allows a tenant to enforce his own rights as well a well as the public’s rights, (3) it deters improper conduct by landlords, (4) it strengthen the bargaining power of a tenant, and (5) it provides a much needed backup for th State as there are too many violations for the Attorney General’s Office to enforce alone.
These new bills would limit a tenant’s attorney’s fees to 3 times the amount of the compensatory damages awarded in all cases in which only compensatory damages are awarded. If non-monetary relief is awarded in addition to compensatory damages (such as injunctive or declaratory relief, rescission or modification, or specific performance the court must “presume” that reasonable attorney’s fees do not exceed 3 times the amount of the compensatory damages awarded, however that presumption may b overcome after the court analyzes 13 factors which the bills will allow a court to consider when setting the amount of attorney’s fees.
Critics of the two new bills feel that if passed, they will essentially “gut” Wisconsin’s consumer protection laws. Their argument is that no attorney will be able to afford to tak a tenant’s smaller damage case due to the limitations of their fees. As a result, it is argued that tenants will no longer be able to challenge the improper behavior of the landlords and therefore” bad” landlords will be able to do whatever they want and get away with it.
UPDATE – 10-28-11 — On Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 the aforementioned bill was passed by the Senate 17-15 (on a party line vote). The bill was softened a bit to allow for atty. fees greater than 3 times damages to be awarded by a judge BUT the presumption would still be that three times damages is sufficient.