Thursday, May 15, 2008
State High Court to Rule on Fee Award Sought by LAPD Officer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether a Los Angeles Superior Court judge abused his discretion by denying attorney fees to a Los Angeles Police Department officer who won a small damage award in an anti-discrimination suit against the city.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted 5-2 to review the ruling by Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal that Judge Rolf Treu erred in denying fees to Robert Chavez solely because his $11,500 recovery was less than the general jurisdictional threshold.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan voted to hear the case, outvoting Justices Kathryn M. Wedegar and Carlos Moreno.
Chavez claimed in his Fair Employment and Housing Act suit that he was subjected to discrimination based on a perceived disability and in retaliation for complaining about harassment and discrimination. He sought recovery for five days’ lost pay and benefits and for emotional distress, and punitive damages.
After extensive mediation efforts failed, the case went to trial before a jury that awarded the plaintiff $1,500 for lost pay and benefits and $10,000 for emotional distress, but no punitive damages. Chavez’s attorney, Rochelle Evans Jackson, moved for $871,000 in attorney fees, but Treu awarded nothing.
The judge cited Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1033(a), which allows the court to deny costs to a plaintiff who is awarded less than the $25,000 minimum separating limited and general civil jurisdiction.
But Justice Madeleine Flier, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the statute does not apply to attorney fee awards in FEHA cases.
“Denying attorney fees to a plaintiff who prevails under FEHA solely because the plaintiff’s damages are modest would be inimical to the intent of FEHA’s fee provisions and would discourage attorneys from taking meritorious cases,” Flier wrote. “Unless a victory is merely technical or ‘de minimis’ and does not serve a public purpose, federal and state courts almost uniformly refuse to link the size of a fee award to the amount of damages a plaintiff recovers.”
‘Conflicting Public Policies’
Flier elaborated that “FEHA and section 1033, subdivision (a), each serve laudable but conflicting public policies, particularly so in light of the rule that attorney fees must be awarded to a prevailing plaintiff under FEHA unless special circumstances make an award unjust under that statute.” Treu, she noted, made no finding of any such “special circumstances.”
The justice emphasized that the court was expressing no opinion as to how much the trial judge should award on remand.
The case is Chavez v. City of Los Angeles, 160 Cal.App.4th 410, and was decided on Feb. 22.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company