In all litigation, but particularly in Indiana business litigation, it is important for the litigants to know the reasons for the judge’s decision on the merits of the dispute. Those reasons also become a focal point in any appeal to the Indiana appellate courts. Indiana Trial Rule 52 serves these purposes by requiring that upon the timely written request of any party, “the court in all actions tried upon the facts without a jury or with an advisory jury . . . shall find the facts specially and state its conclusions thereon.”
In Nunn Law Office v. Rosenthal, the Court of Appeals of Indiana addressed whether Trial Rule 52(A) is satisfied when a trial court makes findings orally rather than in writing. At issue was the share of plaintiff’s attorney fees that should be paid to the attorney who originally filed a personal injury action, but who was discharged by the plaintiff before the case was resolved.
The Court of Appeals observed that nothing in Trial Rule 52(A) specifies that the trial court’s findings and conclusions must be in written form, although the Court of Appeals notes that written findings and conclusions are preferred. Further, the Court reasoned that oral findings and conclusions serve the purposes of Trial Rule 52(A) “so long as they are thoroughly detailed in the record.” Therefore, the Indiana appellate court held that the trial court’s failure to enter written findings and conclusions, in and of itself, does not constitute reversible error.
As to the sufficiency of the trial court’s oral findings, the Indiana appellate court determined that the trial judge’s oral explanation of how she determined the amount of attorneys’ fees awarded to co-plaintiff’s counsel was sufficient. Among other things, the trial judge stated the number of hours, billable rates and service descriptions of the professional services for which the fees were earned.
Finally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s use of a quantum meruit or equitable measure to determine the amount of the fees, rather than a contingency basis, because the fee contract in question failed to specify the measure of fees upon a pre-contingency termination of the representation.
This aspect of the case relating to how the fee award was determined, however, merely reaffirms existing Indiana law. The real lesson for the Indiana appellate lawyer is that a trial court’s failure to enter written findings and conclusions even when properly requested may not constitute reversible error if the trial court stated somewhere in the record the reasons for its decision.