MSY Trading Inc. v. Saleen Automotive, Inc.Annotate this Case
A "subtle" question concerning entitlement to attorney fees raised by this appeal was one of first impression for the Court of Appeal. In a separate lawsuit filed at Superior Court, plaintiffs obtained a judgment for breach of contract, including an award of attorney fees, against certain entities not parties to the present suit. Plaintiffs filed the present enforcement action against defendants, seeking to hold them liable on the judgment as alter egos of the judgment debtors. Plaintiffs lost against one of the defendants, Steve Saleen (Steve). Steve moved for attorney fees under the contract; the court granted the motion and plaintiffs appeals. Plaintiffs contended this was not an action on the contract and, therefore, fees were unavailable under Civil Code section 1717. Instead, it was an enforcement action. They cited caselaw for the proposition that a judgment on the contract subsumes and extinguishes contractual rights. On the other hand, had plaintiffs included Steve as a defendant in the Superior Court suit, making the exact same alter ego allegations they made to the Court of Appeal, undoubtedly Steve would have been entitled to contractual attorney fees under the doctrine of reciprocity established by Civil Code section 1717 and Reynolds Metals Co. v. Alperson, 25 Cal.3d 124 (1979), even though he was not a signatory on the contract. The Court of Appeal concluded the timing of an alter ego claim (either pre- or postjudgment) was too arbitrary a consideration on which to base the right to attorney fees. "When a judgment creditor attempts to add a party to a breach of contract judgment that includes a contractual fee award, the suit is essentially 'on the contract' for purposes of Civil Code section 1717." The Court therefore agreed with Steve and affirmed judgment.