Can there be a prevailing party when an action is voluntarily dismissed without prejudice?  According to the Idaho Supreme Court, the answer is yes.  Charney v. Charney, 2015 Opinion No. 59 (June 23, 2015), is a decision that should serve as a note of caution for Idaho litigators.

Two months following their divorce, Dennis Charney initiated contempt proceedings against his ex-wife, Judy Charney, for allegedly violating their property settlement agreement.  Judy denied the allegations and the matter was set for a hearing.  Two weeks prior to the hearing, Dennis filed a motion to dismiss the contempt proceedings, which the magistrate granted, dismissing the matter without prejudice.

The magistrate then granted Judy’s motion for attorney fees and costs, finding that Judy was the prevailing party in the contempt proceedings and awarding her attorney fees in the amount of $8,867.50 pursuant to Idaho Code §§ 7-610 and 12-123.  Dennis appealed to the district court, which affirmed the fee award and awarded Judy her attorney fees on appeal in the amount of $9,297.50.

The Idaho Supreme Court rejected Dennis’s argument that Judy could not be considered the prevailing party.  The Court stated that it had not “directly addressed whether a defendant can be a prevailing party in an action dismissed without prejudice,” but that this was the basis of its decision in an earlier case, Parkside Schools, Inc. v. Bronco Elite Arts & Athletics, LLC, 145 Idaho 176, 177 P.3d 390 (2008).  The Court reviewed its decision in Parkside and held that “[a] court can determine that a party is a prevailing party even when the proceedings against the party are dismissed without prejudice.”  It thus affirmed the fee award to Judy under Idaho Code § 7-610.  The Court also affirmed the district court’s award of attorney fees to Judy on appeal under the same statute.  And, to add insult to injury, the Court found Judy was the prevailing party and awarded her attorney fees on appeal.

All in all, after voluntarily dismissing a contempt proceeding without prejudice prior to the hearing, Dennis was required to pay his ex-wife’s attorney fees in the amount of $18,165, plus the fees she incurred in defending the appeal before the Idaho Supreme Court.  This case really reflects the importance of the “prevailing party” determination, even when an action is dismissed voluntarily without prejudice.