The trial court granted a petition for attorneys’ fees in this case after it dismissed appellant R.L. Turner Corp.’s suit against the Town of Brownsburg. Turner has contended, principally, that the court “had no jurisdiction” to act once the dismissal had occurred. This misapprehends the nature of jurisdiction. We affirm, as did the Court of Appeals.
Turner’s leading argument is that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the order on fees because entering a final judgment terminates a trial court’s jurisdiction and the order granting the Town’s motions to dismiss and for partial summary judgment constituted a final judgment. (Appellant’s Br. at 7–8.)
Here, it is clear that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction when Turner filed suit. Turner filed a civil suit for tortious interference, quantum meruit, and breach of a duty to a third-party beneficiary in Hendricks Superior Court, a tribunal of general jurisdiction. Nothing in the timing of the trial court’s action alters that analysis. As such, jurisdictional concepts are simply the wrong analytical tools for determining whether an Indiana trial court’s post-judgment action was a valid exercise of its authority.
Instead, we think of a court’s ruling as deciding the case such that any of its acts after judgment implicate not its jurisdiction, but rather court rules and judicial doctrines that safeguard the finality of judgments. So, the question here is one of procedural error, not jurisdiction.
A. Awarding “Costs” in the Judgment. Indiana courts have always understood “costs” as a term of art that includes filing fees and statutory witness fees but does not include attorneys’ fees. See, e.g., Wiley v. McShane, 875 N.E.2d 273 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007); see also Van Winkle v. Nash, 761 N.E.2d 856 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002). That should come as no surprise given Indiana’s adherence to the common-law American rule that each party must pay his own attorneys’ fees in course of litigation. Town of St. John, 751 N.E.2d at 658.
We take the routine and summary award of “costs” to the prevailing party simply to mean here what it usually means—filing fees and witness fees. It did not mean that the trial court had either granted or denied the Town’s request for attorneys’ fees.
B. Petitions for Attorneys’ Fees as Untimely Motions. Even after the matter proceeds to a final judgment, however, a party may still move the court to reopen, under the limited exceptions for motions to reconsider, motions to correct error under Indiana Trial Rule 59, and motions for relief from judgment under Indiana Trial Rule 60(B). A party must file a motion to correct error within thirty days of the judgment. Ind. Trial Rule 59(C). A party must file a motion for relief from judgment within a reasonable time after or within one year of the judgment, depending on the grounds on which the party seeks relief. Ind. Trial Rule 60(B).
By contrast, Indiana Trial Rule 54(D), which governs orders awarding costs to the prevailing party but does not expressly mention attorneys’ fees, does not contain any such traditional time limit for filing a motion for costs.
As a result, when a prevailing party files a petition for attorneys’ fees after the time limits in Indiana Trial Rules 59(C) or 60(B) have passed, the losing party sometimes tries to shoehorn that petition into one of these Rules so he can denounce it as being untimely….
…A petition for fees does not disturb the merits of an earlier judgment or order, so it does not implicate Indiana Trial Rules 59(C) or 60(B). As such, none of those respective time limits govern a petition for attorneys’ fees.
Instead, trial courts must use their discretion to prevent unfairness to parties facing petitions for fees. A request for attorneys’ fees almost by definition is not ripe for consideration until after the main event reaches an end. Entertaining such petitions post-judgment is virtually the norm. To be sure, a request for fees is in some sense an equitable petition, and it might be that an extremely tardy request should fall on deaf ears due to lack of notice or staleness.
Here, however, Turner received multiple warnings. In two separate letters to Einterz, Steele warned Turner that the Town would seek fees, citing for good measure the statute that authorized such an award for a frivolous suit. In three separate motions to the court, the Town prayed for an award of fees as well. Coming on the heels of these five separate warnings, the Town’s renewed petition for attorneys’ fees could hardly have come as a shock to Turner.
We therefore affirm the trial court.
Sullivan and David, JJ., concur.
Rucker, J., concurs in part and dissents in part with separate opinion in which Dickson, J., joins.
Rucker, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I respectfully dissent from part II of the majority opinion. Under Indiana Code section 34-52-1-1(b) a trial court may award attorneys’ fees as part of the cost to the prevailing party “if the court finds that either party” advanced claims or defenses that were frivolous, unreasonable, groundless, or otherwise litigated in bad faith. Even accepting as true the majority’s position that the statute does not require the trial court to make an express finding, still the trial court must somehow indicate that it determined that one side or the other advanced claims or defenses that were frivolous, unreasonable, groundless, or otherwise litigated in bad faith, before awarding attorneys’ fees under the statute. Here, there was nothing.
Dickson, J., joins.