Law School Case Brief
Fisher v. Estate of Haley - 695 N.E.2d 1022 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998)
For purposes of awarding attorney fees pursuant to Ind. Code § 34-1-32-1, a claim is "frivolous" if it is made primarily to harass or maliciously injure another, if counsel is unable to make a good faith and rational argument on the merits of the claim, or if counsel is unable to support the action by a good faith and rational argument for extension, modification, or reversal of existing law. A claim is "unreasonable" if, based upon the totality of the circumstances, including the law and facts known at the time of filing the claim, no reasonable attorney would consider the claim justified or worthy of litigation. A claim is "groundless" if no facts exist which support the legal claim relied upon and presented by the losing party. Finally, a claim is litigated in "bad faith" if the party presenting the claim is affirmatively operating with furtive design or ill will.
After his former employee, Nylah Haley died, plaintiff appellant Donald Fisher filed a claim with her estate for retained corporate earnings and interest, alleging that Haley signed checks made out to herself and her family unbeknownst to him and caused payroll checks to be made out to Haley’s daughter without his knowledge. Defendant appellee estate offered testimony that Fisher participated in the scheme, permitting the Haley to evade the social security wage cap by paying her daughter and providing her other benefits. The trial court denied Fisher’s claims against the estate of Haley. Also, the trial court denied Haley’s estate’s request for an assessment of attorney fees under Ind. Code § 34-1-32-1. Both parties appealed.
Did the trial court err in its decision to: (i) deny denied Plaintiff Fisher’s claims against the estate of Haley; and to (ii) deny defendant estate’s request for an assessment of attorney fees under Ind. Code § 34-1-32-1?
The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed the denial of appellant plaintiff Fisher’s claim, as well as appellee defendant estate's claim for attorney fees, holding that the superior court properly held that the dead man's statute, Ind. Code § 34-1-14-6, prohibited the former employer from offering testimony against the former employee's estate. Furthermore, the Court held that the superior court could properly have found that Fisher knew or should have known of Haley’s actions, and although Haley’s action was made more difficult to prove by the superior court's exclusion of evidence under § 34-1-14-6, it was not frivolous, so attorney's fees were not warranted under Ind. Code § 34-1-32-1.
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