Defending lawsuits is sometimes an unfortunate but necessary part of doing business. Whether the case was quickly dismissed by the court, or whether you won the case after a trial, you and your attorneys knew the case was unfounded from the beginning and yet you had to spend substantial time and money that you could have devoted to your business in order to successfully defeat the case.
Depending on the facts and circumstances and whether the suit was pending in state or federal court, your fees may be recoverable from other side as a sanction for filing a “frivolous” claim against you. However, absent a contract or statute providing otherwise, you will most likely be unable to recover your attorneys’ fees simply because you won your case.
Assuming the suit was filed in Illinois, sanctions may be available. Generally, to recover fees against a party or his or her attorney under either rule, it must be shown that the party and/or his attorney either: (1) failed to reasonably investigate the facts or the law before filing the offending complaint, (2) filed the complaint for the purpose of harassment, delay, or to increase the cost of litigation for the opposing party. One principal difference between the federal rule and the Illinois rule is that under the federal rule, only an attorney can be monetarily sanctioned based on unwarranted legal contentions. Thus, if the complaint was filed in federal court, while both the attorney and client are responsible for ensuring that the facts contained in the complaints are accurate and complete, only the attorney may be sanctioned for a complaint based on a claim or argument that is not warranted by existing law. By contrast, under certain circumstances, the Illinois rule permits the court to sanction both the party and his attorney—even if the complaint is found to have been legally (as opposed to factually) unwarranted.
It is important to note that not every meritless case is considered “frivolous” for purposes of recovering attorneys’ fees. The United States Supreme Court has held that an action or claim is frivolous if “it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Similarly, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has characterized a filing that is incoherent and lacks a legal basis as “frivolous.” Thus, “frivolous” does not necessarily mean “meritless,” but rather, a frivolous suit lacks a factual or legal basis, and as such, has very little chance of being won. For this reason, it is recommended that a party wishing to seek sanctions do so at the end of the case, i.e., after the court makes a determination that the claim lacks legal and/or factual merit.
In addition, as the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently determined, whether a case or claim is “frivolous” is not the end of the inquiry. A request for attorneys’ fees may nonetheless be denied where fees that were incurred were “self-inflicted” by, for example, pursuing one strategy over another, or briefing an appeal on the merits rather than filing a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.
Both the federal rule and the Illinois rule are discretionary and are strictly applied by the courts. As such, sanctions are infrequently granted. Regardless of how and when your litigation was resolved, you and your attorneys should evaluate whether it would be appropriate to seek sanctions, and if so, whether it would be worthwhile from a cost perspective.
If you have any questions regarding a litigation matter you find yourself involved in, please contact:
(312) 368-0100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
 This article is the first of a three-part series: Part II will address the recovery of attorneys’ fees pursuant to various Illinois statutes, and Part III will address the recovery of attorneys’ fees pursuant to a contract where the dispute is resolved outside of the litigation context.