In Camacho v. L&T Int'l Corp., 4 NMI 323, 330 (1996), the Court discussed what a litigant must accomplish in order to qualify as a prevailing party.
The case concerned a lease for real property. When the appellant-lessee failed to exercise its option to renew the lease within the specified timeframe, the appellee-lessor brought suit seeking a declaration that the lease expired, damages for unlawful detainer, and attorney fees.
The lessee counter-claimed for restitution seeking reimbursement for allegedly valuable improvements it made to the property. When the trial court granted partial summary judgment on the lessor's motion, concluding that the lease expired, the lessee moved out.
The lessor then filed a supplemental claim for waste, asserting that the improvements the lessee made to the property rendered it of no practical use, and for damages relating to personal property covered by the lease.
The trial court found in favor of the lessor on all of his claims, and against the lessee on its counter-claim.
On appeal, we affirmed on all counts except with respect to the issue of waste, finding that the lessor agreed to the changes at the time, and also that the lessor successfully defended against the counter-claim. Id. at 327-28.
Concerning the award of attorney's fees, the lessee claimed that the amount awarded was erroneous because the lessor should not be awarded fees for defending against the counter-claim, litigating the waste issue, the determination that the lease was terminated, and for unlawful detainer. Id. at 329.
The lease agreement, which allowed for attorney fees, specified that if the lessor brought suit under the lease and prevailed the court would award him fees. Id.
While the Court reversed the trial court on the waste claim, finding that the lessor was not entitled to damages, we still affirmed the entire fee award. Id. at 330.
Furthermore, the counter-claim, while not initiated by the lessor, was brought in the context of the litigation he initiated, and he prevailed on the whole in the litigation. Id.
In determining what is necessary to prevail on the whole in the lawsuit, we found a prevailing party:
"may be the party prevailing in interest, and not necessarily the prevailing person. To be such does not depend upon the degree of success at different stages of the suit, but whether, at the end of the suit . . . the party who has made a claim against the other, has successfully maintained it." Id.
While the Court reversed one claim on appeal, and the lessor did not initiate the counter-claim, we found that he was the prevailing party in the lawsuit on account of his overall success; therefore, the Court affirmed the entire fee award even though he was not successful on every cause of action. Id.