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Power of the attorneys' fee ordinance provision

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

In City of Skidmore v. Stanton, the Western District Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the City, showcasing the need for local authority supporting such an award. In the case, the City cited a citizen for a nuisance violation. The City’s nuisance ordinance authorized three remedies for nuisance violation – (1) prosecution of the offender which could lead to a fine or imprisonment, (2) an abatement, which allowed the City to remove or stop the nuisance and recoup any costs associated therewith, and (3) an injunction to eliminate, prevent, or remove the nuisance. In its prosecution of the nuisance in municipal court, the City additionally filed a motion for and was awarded attorneys’ fees pursuant to§ 79.383 RSMo. The defendant appealed the award of attorneys’ fees as improper. The appellate court found that the trial court erred in awarding attorneys’ fees because § 79.383 only permitted an award of fees for “abatement of nuisances,” whereas the City chose to prosecute the nuisance as an ordinance violation and not a civil abatement action. The court found that without other authority, an award of fees pursuant to § 79.383 was improper. The court appeared to suggest that had the City’s ordinance contained authority for fees the award may have been proper on local authority, but since the City’s ordinance made no mention of attorneys’ fees the award was contrary to law. Municipalities should review their codes to see if there is any provision for an award of its attorneys’ fees when the municipality has to enforce any portion of its code, and if not, consider adopting such a provision.

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