Courts: No Attorney Fees Will Be Awarded in Hyatt Case, Nevada Court Rules

Nevada Supreme Court

There was no prevailing party in the decades-long litigation between the Franchise Tax Board and Nevada inventor Gilbert Hyatt, and thus neither side will be ordered to pay the other’s legal costs or attorney fees, a Nevada trial court judge ruled.

The Clark County judge issued the ruling February 21, but the decision was not posted on the FTB’s litigation webpage until March 19.

The decision appears to be a win for Hyatt, as the FTB was asking the court to order Hyatt to pay its legal costs. The costs are not specified in publicly available documents, but are likely to be in the millions, as the FTB has contracted with high-profile private law firms for about two decades, in addition to using its own legal staff and lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office.

The ruling is the latest in a long trail of court decisions in the dispute.

After a long trial that concluded in 2008, a Nevada jury ordered the FTB to pay Hyatt approximately $2.5 million in attorney fees, in addition to damages totaling approximately $500 million. The jury found the FTB guilty of committing fraud against Hyatt and intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon him during a residency audit in the 1990s.

The jury’s award was reduced significantly by the Nevada Supreme Court, before the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 2019 that the FTB was immune from suit by a resident of another state, just as it is immune from suit by a California resident. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overruled a decision that had been cited as precedent for 40 years, and was in contrast to a unanimous 2003 Supreme Court ruling that said Hyatt could sue the FTB in Nevada.

In the latest hearings, the FTB argued that it was the prevailing party, considering the U.S. Supreme Court did not side with Hyatt. The inventor argued that the Supreme Court’s decision was retroactive, and essentially meant the earlier litigation never happened, and thus there was no prevailing party. Both parties filed briefs in October.

Although the FTB’s website notes that on February 21 the court entered an order “dismissing case, finding that there is no prevailing party, and finding that neither party is entitled to costs or attorney’s fees,” it adds that on February 26 the FTB filed a “memorandum of costs.” This suggests the agency plans to appeal.

The litigation over FTB auditors’ behavior is separate from Hyatt’s appeal of the underlying tax. In that appeal, the State Board of Equalization sided with Hyatt on most issues in 2017, and the Office of Tax Appeals denied the FTB’s petition to rehear the appeal, ruling in January 2019 that “there was sufficient evidence to justify the BOE’s decision.”