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Thompson Coburn client wins attorneys’ fees ruling from 9th Circuit

August 24, 2015

Natalie Ikhlassi
Natalie Ikhlassi
Helen Kim
Helen Kim

Thompson Coburn attorney Natalie Ikhlassi won her first appellate-level oral argument this week when the 9th Circuit ruled that California law should prevail in a diversity jurisdiction case.

The three-judge panel unanimously sided with client Christina Ahn, who was attempting to recover attorneys’ fees from First Intercontinental Bank. Partner Helen B. Kim had already won a summary judgment for Christina in the underlying case, which involved a $1.9 million loan for the purchase of a hotel. The district court ruled that the Bank had released Christina from any obligations of the loan, granted summary judgment in her favor, and awarded her attorneys’ fees pursuant to the loan documents. The bank appealed only the award of attorneys’ fees. 

The loan documents, however, included a unilateral attorneys’ fees clause, which would allow only the bank to recover attorneys’ fees in the event it prevailed, but not Christina. The loan documents also included a Georgia choice-of-law provision. 

California Civil Code section 1717, however, mandates that attorneys’ fees provisions be construed as reciprocal, where a contract contains only a unilateral attorneys’ fee provision. Georgia law does not require such reciprocity.

Thus, the 9th Circuit engaged in a choice of law analysis and determined California’s policy requiring reciprocal attorneys’ fees for the protection of its citizens was a fundamental policy that served a materially greater interest than any interest the state of Georgia had in the matter. This is the first published decision out of the 9th Circuit on the issue.

Helen wrote the appellate brief and planned to handle the oral argument, but when she was pulled away to work on another matter, Natalie stepped in to present the oral argument.