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Generally, pro se non-attorney litigants cannot recover attorney fees under a statute providing for attorney fees.

Can a non-attorney recover for time spent on litigation (time preparing for trial, time in court, etc.) via alternative means (lost wages, consequential damages, etc.)?

More generally, can a litigant who has attorney representation recover for time spent on litigation?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – feetwet
    Nov 21 at 17:56
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Litigants in Person - i.e. litigants not represented by solicitors (= attorneys in US) can recover the cost of their time at a set rate under the Litigants in Person (Costs and Expenses) Act 1975

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Generally, no.

Even in a suit for conversion, only time expended to recovering the converted property definitely, and independently in its purposes from litigation can be recovered; no time expended for litigation or the preparation thereof is recoverable according to the courts.


If certain preparatory work may be both used a means to compel the converter to produce the property and to files suit and litigate the matter, such time will be excluded as a result of courts aversion towards the idea of allowing the disruption of “proper” course of the judicial process by letting everyone (including those represented) on the court floor with their problems.

Section 3333. [Civ. Code]

For the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, the measure of damages, except where otherwise expressly provided by this Code, is the amount which will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby, whether it could have been anticipated or not.

Section 3336. [Civ. Code]

The detriment caused by the wrongful conversion of personal property is presumed to be:

First—The value of the property at the time of the conversion, with the interest from that time, or, an amount sufficient to indemnify the party injured for the loss which is the natural, reasonable and proximate result of the wrongful act complained of and which a proper degree of prudence on his part would not have averted; and

Second—A fair compensation for the time and money properly expended in pursuit of the property.

Summarily, In Gladstone v. Hillel a California Court of Appeal summarized the state of judicial construction relating to the above questions a which, citing previous precedent, reads out important remedies of the above statute which would otherwise be detrimental to make justice work in California in general where attorney’s fees recovery is generally very limited due to what colloquially is referred to as the “American rule”. Many, therefore, would have to settle for having not only a fool (rather a person without the means to pay up) for a client, but also a generally incompetent, unexperienced, biased attorney (himself). This “loophole” to clog the courts is properly dealt with and made sure no one will just spend hundreds if not thousands of hours for education only to “waste” the court’s time, and recover potentially orders of magnitude more in time expended for litigation than the amount otherwise in controversy while getting a basic legal education.

“It has long been held that Civil Code section 3336 does not authorize the award of attorney's fees. ( Haines v. Parra (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 1553, 1558-1559 [ 239 Cal.Rptr. 178].) As an apparent extension of this rule, the early case of W. P. Nicholls v. Mapes (1905) 1 Cal.App. 349, 356 [ 82 P. 265], disallowed 10 dollars that plaintiff paid "`in expenses of Charles Tuttle in coming to Dutch Flat to take the depositions.'" More recently, Security-First National Bank of Los Angeles v. Lutz (9th Cir. 1963) 322 F.2d 348, 352, refused to allow certain accounting expenses paid after the converted property had been successfully traced and identified. The court held "[t]hese expenses, then, were incurred in preparation for litigation and not in pursuit of property."

When Civil Code section 3336 was enacted in 1872, the Legislature may have contemplated compensation for time spent searching the countryside in search of misappropriated livestock or other chattels. But Gladstone could only rely on legal process to recover the property that appellants withheld. The preliminary injunction that he obtained in July 1981, marked only the beginning of his efforts. After returning most of the molds, appellants actively concealed their possession of other property. In a letter dated December 13, 1983, their attorney informed Gladstone that "rings or jewelry left with the company" had been either sold or "melted down and disposed of in payment of business bills sometime between December 1981 and June, 1982." Nhaissi had testified to the same effect on deposition. At trial appellants finally produced five missing molds and twenty-one pieces of jewelry manufactured by M. Gladstone Co. but, despite persistent cross-examination, Gladstone was unable to locate much of the converted property.

Under modern conditions, the legislative purpose of Civil Code section 3336 would be defeated by rigorously excluding all items having some connection with litigation. The statute should at least extend to efforts that had a purpose independent of the litigation, such as preparation of lists of missing property, inspection of inventories, meetings with appellants, contacts with law enforcement authorities, and inquiries regarding appropriate courses of action. The record of these items is sufficient to sustain the relatively modest award of $10,000 at issue here.“ (Gladstone v. Hillel, 203 Cal.App.3d 977, 250 Cal. Rptr. 372 (Cal. Ct. App. 1988))

Thinking out of the box...

Depending on the nature of the litigation, for example in case of bad faith acts or omissions, malice, fraud, oppression or retaliation being underlying factors of the suit, or if the, in order to deter recidivism or imitation, especially in cases of reprehensible conduct (or less reprehensibly: omissions) when other members of the public were also harmed by similar conduct (or omission) punitive damages may be awarded. I have yet to come across case law that expressly asserts, but it does appear that a secondary (if not primary function) of punitive damages (since it is not compensatory in nature) is to incentivize watchdog activity. It is imposed on the defendant and awarded to the plaintiff typically not exceeding a single digit multiplier over the compensatory damages or about 9.99 times or less than the actual damages of the plaintiff.

Civil penalties are similar, although typically have a lower threshold of reprehensibility in that it may be awarded — typically per statute — even when bad faith act or omission is not established for example when a defendant should have known they had a duty by the exercise of reasonable or ordinary care, and they failed to act on it. In many cases where applicable: Civil penalties may only be evaded by the exercise of reasonable or ordinary care and good faith attempts to comply with statutory duties. In case of failure, to similar ends, civil penalties may be imposed on the defendant, and awarded to the litigant which is also damages of non-compensatory nature and assessed in multipliers typically not exceeding double or treble damages over the actual or compensatory damages.

Other creative solutions to compensate for the time wasted to get things right might (or might not) be available.

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  • 4
    "Time value of money" is related to the amount of money and the time during which the rightful owner was deprived of it - basically, the interest they could have earned during that time. It has nothing to do with the value of human time expended in trying to recover the money. Nov 21 at 4:10
  • @NateEldredge You're very possibly right. I'll make an edit.
    – kisspuska
    Nov 21 at 4:14
  • Can you give a summary of this answer? It's a lot to read. Nov 21 at 18:37
  • @NikeDattani added revisions and a summary half way through, the text in bold should help also to navigate through the different section.
    – kisspuska
    Nov 21 at 18:56
  • Thanks, but I'm finding it hard to get the gist of your answer without reading the entire thing (and it's quite long). Nov 21 at 18:58
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There may be exceptions, but the simple and straightforward answer is no, you can't generally recover for time spent on litigation.

You can often recover the actual costs of litigation -- filing fees, depositions, copying costs (and sometimes your attorney's fees} -- but time is not an actual cost, and it is therefore generally not recoverable. See Eberts v. Businesspeople Pers. Servs., Inc., 620 S.W.2d 861, 863 (Tex. Civ. App.--Dallas 1981, no writ) (holding lost earnings due to time spent on litigation by plaintiff's president and other employees are not recoverable); Shenandoah Assocs. v. J & K Props., Inc., 741 S.W.2d 470, 486-87 (Tex. App.--Dallas 1987, writ denied) (holding expenses of litigation, including "litigant's loss of time and that of his employees," not recoverable as costs or damages); see also Beasley v. Peters, 870 S.W.2d 191, 196 (Tex. App.--Amarillo 1994, no writ) ("[I]t is settled that time lost [due to litigation] is an expense of litigation for which recovery is not allowed.").

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    The cites each appear to apply for Texas(?), my answer is specific to California. Maybe the case is similar now in California and case law choked Second of Section 3336 of the California Civil Code. But the cites you provided still don’t appear to be authorities to support that. Regarding punitive damages and civil penalties since they are not compensatory, clearly they will not compensate time directly.
    – kisspuska
    Nov 21 at 16:20
  • What about for someone like a photographer, whose income literally depends on the number of hours of work that they do? Barry Payling received compensation for all of his wasted time, at the rate of his hourly wage as a photographer (though this was in UK and an out-of-court-settlement). Nov 21 at 18:39
  • @bdb484 You’re right. No direct remedy for time is available specifically for the “state of the law” and the development of judicial constructions. Pretty ridiculous though.
    – kisspuska
    Nov 21 at 18:45
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    One of the most notable exceptions is that paid fiduciaries of estate and trusts are entitled to their fiduciary fees from the estate or trust, including time spent in litigation, in addition to legal fees, and this can sometimes be recovered from a litigant by reducing their share of a trust or estate distribution by the associated expense.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 22 at 20:21
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    @kisspuska Yes. Done.
    – bdb484
    Nov 23 at 13:03
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Here's a personal take on it based on my own litigation and study.

Sanctions can be anything.

In my jurisdictions, legal fees are not normally awarded. I got them because of blatant legal misdeeds of the plaintiff, which offended the court's sensibilities, inspiring them to award punitive sanctions.

The point was to punish. Use of "my legal fees" merely served as a "hat-rack", something for the judge to "hang their hat on" that would be trivial to justify to an appeals court. But the judge could have made the sanctions any reasonable value.

However... there's a tax consequence

If the judge had awarded me $3000 in general sanctions, that would be taxable income and I would need to pay tax on it. By awarding legal fees (to be paid to my attorney), I side-step the question of income, as well as the question of whether the legal costs would have been tax deductible had I needed to pay them.

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  • Mind linking to the opinion?
    – Josh
    Nov 21 at 23:15
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    @Josh sorry, it was an old-school rural court that wasn't into digital (and was into "$1/page for copies"). It didn't go high enough in the appeals system to be citable. Nov 22 at 0:25
  • No worries. And excellent point about the tax consequences.
    – Josh
    Nov 22 at 0:31

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