If you sue someone in the United States, the general rule is that you will be required to pay your own attorney’s fees and litigation expenses. This practice is so ingrained in our legal system that it is called the “American Rule” and has been referenced by the Supreme Court (ex: Alyeska Pipeline v. Wilderness Society). In theory, the American Rule ensures that you will not be afraid to sue or defend yourself in court because you might have to pay the legal fees for both sides. It also ensures that parties only end up in court when it’s really worth it to be there.
North Carolina Law offers some limited exceptions to the American Rule. Examples may include lawsuits for libel and slander (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-18), wherein you are entitled to the costs of counsel “of course” if you win in court. However, if your lawsuit is unsuccessful, you could be required to pay the legal costs of the person whom you sue (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-19). You may also be entitled to repayment of your attorney’s fees if you have been defrauded in certain financial contexts (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 78A-56), if your city or county exceeded their powers (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-21.7), or if you were the victim of unfair deceptive trade practices (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-16). Finally, if you win a breach-of-contract lawsuit when you and the other party contractually agreed that the winner of any such lawsuit would be entitled to attorney’s fees, the court may award you repayment for your legal costs (ex: N.C. Gen. Stat. § 57D-2-32).
However, even if the court orders that you be recompensed for your legal costs, you will be entitled to only “reasonable” attorney’s fees—i.e., enough money to cover the legal actions actually necessary for you to win your case. As you can imagine, a subject standard like this leaves a lot of room for the court’s discretion.
Despite the American Rule, there is a small chance that you can recover your legal fees in Federal court. For this to occur, compensation for attorney’s fees must be enumerated by some federal law—as it is in 200 instances, per the Congressional Research Service—or the losing party must have acted in bad faith (i.e., annoyingly or wastefully) in connection with their suit.
Declan M. Hurley
The law applies differently in each situation. Nothing on this page should be construed as or be relied upon as legal advice.