Question: When is a civil case frivolous?
Answer: Basically, it is when the trial court finds that your case was or has become groundless or litigated in bad faith.
On December 21, 2011, Richard filed a petition for an order for protection and request for a hearing against Ronalee. Richard alleged that Ronalee struck him with a vodka bottle and that he received 18 stitches. On December 22, 2011, the court issued an ex parte order for protection. On February 9, 2012, Richard failed to appear for a hearing and the court ordered that the petition for an order for protection be terminated. On February 13, 2012, Ronalee presented evidence at the hearing that she was not the individual that caused Richard to receive stitches and requested the payment of attorney fees. On February 13, 2012, the court granted the motion and stated that she was entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees in the sum of $500. On February 24, 2012, Richard filed a motion to correct errors which was denied by the court.
Generally, Indiana has consistently followed the American Rule in which both parties generally pay their own fees. In the absence of statutory authority or an agreement between the parties to the contrary —or an equitable exception—a prevailing party has no right to recover attorney fees from the opposition. The record does not reveal what statutory basis, if any, or what reason cited in support of her request for attorney fees. The court’s order also did not specify a statutory provision supporting the award of attorney fees. In any civil action, the court may award attorney’s fees as part of the cost to the prevailing party, if the court finds that either party: (1) brought the action or defense on a claim or defense that is frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless; (2) continued to litigate the action or defense after the party’s claim or defense clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless; or (3) litigated the action in bad faith. I.C. § 34–52–1–1. 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 action; 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, no reasonable attorney would consider the claim justified or worthy of litigation. A claim or defense is groundless if no facts exist which support the legal claim relied on and presented by the losing party. However, an action is not groundless merely because a party loses on the merits. Bad faith is demonstrated where the party presenting the claim is affirmatively operating with furtive design or ill will.
Richard argued that the trial court made no specific finding that he brought or continued his action after his claim became frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that he litigated in bad faith. Richard also argues that while Ronalee presented evidence that she was not the individual that caused him to receive stitches, it is undisputed that he was injured by someone at the party and that he verified under oath that she caused the injuries. While Richard failed to appear at the hearing and the court found that Ronalee presented evidence that she was not the individual that caused him to receive stitches, we cannot say that the record supports the conclusion that his action was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, that he continued to litigate after his claim clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that he litigated the action in bad faith. Accordingly, we conclude that Richard has made a prima facie showing that the award of attorney fees was improper and we we reverse the trial court’s judgment ordering Richard to pay attorney fees. Dunno v. Rasmussen, 980 N.E.2d 846 (Ind.App. 2012).