It is becoming increasingly clear that the voluntary dismissal of a case in which a foreclosure plaintiff lacks standing does more harm than good. A defendant in such a case may claim an entitlement to prevailing party attorney’s fees. Though it may sound illogical, under such circumstances it may make more sense for a plaintiff to take the case to trial and force the borrower to prevail on their argument regarding standing, as a means to prevent the borrower from accessing attorney’s fees.
In Florida, the ability of a borrower to recover attorney’s fees following the dismissal of a foreclosure case is an evolving concept. Florida law permits a borrower to take advantage of attorney’s fees provisions in notes and mortgages: section 57.105(7), Florida Statutes. Section 57.105(7) provides the following:
If a contract contains a provision allowing attorney’s fees to a party when he or she is required to take any action to enforce the contract, the court may also allow reasonable attorney’s fees to the other party when that party prevails in any action, whether as plaintiff or defendant, with respect to the contract. This subsection applies to any contract entered into on or after October 1, 1988.
Plaintiffs had argued that borrowers who claimed a foreclosure plaintiff lacked standing were incapable of access to this statute, because a plaintiff who lacks standing with respect to a note and mortgage is not a party to the note or mortgage. This argument gained traction, and courts began to explain that where there is no standing for a foreclosure plaintiff, there is no access to reciprocal fees for a borrower.
However, in Glass v. Nationstar Mortg., LLC, 2019 Fla. App. LEXIS 30; 2019 WL 98152; Case No. SC17-1387 (Fla. 2019), the Florida Supreme Court concluded that a voluntary dismissal renders the borrower a prevailing party and, in the absence of a defined ruling stating that the plaintiff lacks standing, there has been no demonstration that the plaintiff is not a party to the note or mortgage. The Fourth District Court of Appeal has carried this logic into Grosso v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., No. 4D17-2874 (Fla. 4th DCA Feb. 6, 2019). In Grosso, the court distinguishes between voluntary dismissals without prejudice and involuntary dismissals:
In this case, HSBC voluntarily dismissed its complaint, thus rendering the homeowner the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. Notably, the trial court never made a judicial determination that HSBC or the homeowner was not a party to the contract. Additionally, HSBC maintained in its complaint a right to enforce the contract.
If it had been demonstrated that plaintiff lacked standing, there would have been room to argue that the borrower was not entitled to the reciprocal fees provision contained in section 57.105. In other words, forcing the borrower to have their day in court and prove their defense could have resulted in a better outcome for the plaintiff.