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Cook v. Grebe

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

September 11, 2018

GREGORY COOK, Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant/Appellant,
CYNTHIA GREBE, et al., Defendants/Counter-Claimants/Appellees.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CV 2015-002890 The Honorable Daniel G. Martin, Judge

          The East Valley Law Firm, Chandler By Daryl R. Wilson Counsel for Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant/Appellant

          MacQueen & Gottlieb, PLC, Phoenix By Benjamin L. Gottlieb, Patrick R. MacQueen Counsel for Defendants/Counter-Claimants/Appellees

          Presiding Judge Michael J. Brown delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Judge Maria Elena Cruz and Judge Maurice Portley [1] joined.


          BROWN, JUDGE

         ¶1 The issue we address is whether a party who prevails on quiet title claims but loses on other claims or defenses is nonetheless eligible to recover attorneys' fees under Arizona Revised Statutes ("A.R.S.") section 12-1103(B). For the following reasons, we conclude that the statute's prevailing-party determination is controlled by whomever prevails on the quiet title claims, and that non-quiet title claims are relevant only for purposes of deciding whether, in the court's discretion, attorneys' fees should be awarded and in what amount.


         ¶2 Gregory Cook and Cynthia Grebe are neighboring property owners.[2] Cook filed a complaint in superior court alleging he adversely possessed Grebe's property by using and maintaining it for more than 15 years. Cook also alleged that Grebe's failure to maintain and secure the property created a private nuisance. Grebe filed counterclaims alleging quiet title, conversion, unjust enrichment, and trespass. After considering competing motions for summary judgment, the superior court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Cook on Grebe's conversion counterclaim.

         ¶3 Near the end of the jury trial on the remaining claims, the superior court struck Grebe's unjust enrichment claim. The jury found in Grebe's favor on her quiet title counterclaim and Cook's adverse possession claim, and in Cook's favor on his private nuisance claim and Grebe's trespass counterclaim. The court then determined that Grebe was "the prevailing party for purposes of the adverse possession and quiet title claims" and stated she could file an application for attorneys' fees.

         ¶4 Grebe requested attorneys' fees in the amount of $82, 726.75, which Cook opposed, asserting Grebe was not entitled to recover fees for claims on which she did not prevail. In its ruling, the court explained that Grebe was "deemed the prevailing party in this matter for purposes of A.R.S. § 12-1103" and entered a fee award of $50, 000. This timely appeal followed.


         ¶5 Generally, a court may award attorneys' fees only when authorized by statute or by agreement of the parties. Taylor v. S. Pac. Transp. Co., 130 Ariz. 516, 523 (1981) (citation omitted). As provided in A.R.S. § 12-1103(B), a party prevailing in a quiet title action may recover attorneys' fees if, 20 days before bringing the action, he or she tendered five dollars with a request that the other party execute a quit claim deed, and the other party did not comply. See Lange v. Lotzer, 151 Ariz. 260, 262 (App. 1986) ("The Arizona Legislature has expressly determined that only a prevailing party who follows certain prerequisites may recover attorney's fees in quiet title actions."). Although § 12-1103(B) only refers to a "plaintiff," a defendant who successfully asserts a quiet title counterclaim may seek attorneys' fees. See Long v. Clark, 226 Ariz. 95-96, ¶¶ 1, 2 (App. 2010) (reversing a fee award to defendants in a quiet title action because, although they successfully defended, they did not file a counterclaim). It is undisputed that Cook and Grebe each complied with § 12-1103(B)'s prerequisites for recovering attorneys' fees.

         A. Prevailing-Party Determination

         ¶6 We review the superior court's determination of who is the prevailing party, for purposes of awarding attorneys' fees, for an abuse of discretion. Sanborn v. Brooker & Wake Prop. Mgmt., Inc.,178 Ariz. 425, 430 (App. 1994). We review the interpretation of a statute de novo, and when doing so, our goal "is to effectuate the text if it is clear and unambiguous." BSI Holdings, LLC v. Ariz. Dep't of Transp.,244 Ariz. 17, 19, ¶ 9 (2018). A statute's words should be read in context to determine their meaning. Stambaugh v. Killian, ...

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