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Mark Willnerd v. Sybase

January 20, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court


Before the Court is a Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Dkt. 145) by Defendant / Counterclaimant Sybase, Inc. Also pending is Plaintiff Willnerd's Objection (Dkt. 150) to Sybase's Bill of Costs (Dkt. 144). The matters are fully briefed and at issue. The Court has determined that oral argument would not significantly assist the decisional process and will therefore consider the matters without a hearing. Being familiar with the record and having considered the parties' briefing, the Court will grant the Motion (Dkt. 145) in part and deny in part, and order further briefing concerning the Bill of Costs (Dkt. 144), as more fully expressed below.


Plaintiff Mark Willnerd sued his former employer, Defendant Sybase, Inc., alleging wrongful discharge, retaliation, breaches of contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and defamation. Sec. Am. Compl., Dkt. 98. In its initial Answer, Sybase filed a counterclaim for breach of contract. Answer & Ctrclm., Dkt. 9. The parties engaged in extensive discovery, and multiple, contentious discovery disputes. Although the Court attempted to mediate the disputes to avoid the costs and delays involved with formal motions, these attempts were largely unsuccessful.

The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment, and presented oral argument on May 2, 2011. Upon thorough review of the record and arguments of counsel, the Court granted summary judgment to Sybase. Mem. Dec. & Ord., Dkt. 137. Defendant now moves for attorney fees (Dkt. 145).


The issue of attorney fees in diversity actions is governed by the law of the applicable state. Interform Co. v. Mitchell, 575 F.2d 1270 (9th Cir. 1978). Jurisdiction here is based in part on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Sec. Am. Compl., Dkt. 98 ¶ 3. Sybase seeks attorney fees under Idaho Code §§ 12-120(3) and 12-121. Under either provision, Sybase must demonstrate that it prevailed. I.C. §§ 12-120(3), 12-121. Sybase must also show that its requested fees are reasonable. Id.

1. Prevailing Party

To determine which party prevailed on each issue or claim, the courts in Idaho look to (1) the final result or judgment with respect to relief sought, (2) whether there were multiple claims or issues, and (3) the extent to which the parties prevailed on each issue or claim. Wheaton Equip. Co. v. Franmar, Inc., 2007 WL 576450 at *1 (D. Idaho 2007) citing Sanders v. Lankford, 1 P.3d 823, 826 (Idaho Ct. App. 2000). Here there is no question that Sybase was the over-all prevailing party on the claims for which the parties sought relief. See Mem. Dec. & Ord., Dkt. 137. At issue is the extent to which Sybase prevailed on each of the issues, and whether its success on any given claim entitled it to attorney fees by statute or otherwise.

2. Idaho's Mandatory Fee Statute

Under Idaho's mandatory attorney fee statute, the prevailing party in an action to recover on a contract relating to services or in any "commercial transaction . . . shall be allowed a reasonable attorney fee to be set by the court, to be taxed and collected as costs." I.C. § 12-120(3). Whether this provision applies is determined by examining the gravamen of the claim on which relief was sought. Lettunich v. Key Bank Nat'l Ass'n, 109 P.3d 1104, 1110-11 (Idaho 2005); Thomas v. Med. Ctr. Physicians, P.A., 61 P.3d 557, 568 (Idaho 2002) (because employment relationship is contractual, mandatory attorney fee statute applies to claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy).

Where a claim is based in contract, it is explicitly subject to the mandatory attorney fee statute. Jenkins v. Boise Cascade Corp., 108 P.3d 380, 391 (Idaho 2005). Tort claims arising in the same "commercial context" as a contractual claim also fall within Idaho's mandatory attorney fees statute, I.C. § 12-120(3). Lettunich, 109 P.3d at 1110-11. However, Idaho's mandatory fee statute does not apply where the substance of a claim on which the moving party prevailed sounds in tort. Northwest Bec-Corp. v. Home Living Serv., 41 P.3d 263, 270 (Idaho 2002). Nor does it apply where a claim's essence is a statutory violation. Atwood v. Western Const., Inc., 923 P.2d 479, 486 (Idaho Ct. App. 1996).

A. Claims Regarding Education Assistance Agreement

Here, the only claims explicitly based in contract were the parties' respective claims regarding the Education Assistance Agreement. On these claims, the Court found in favor of Sybase and against Willnerd. As prevailing party, Sybase is entitled to reasonable attorney fees incurred in defending and pursuing the breach of Education Assistance Agreement claims.

B. Wrongful Discharge and Violation of the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Claims

Less explicit, but still grounded in contract, are Willnerd's claims for wrongful discharge and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In opposing Sybase's requested attorney fees, Willnerd contends that the Court did not permit him to pursue these claims in contract; thus, the claims cannot be ...

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