Friday, January 15, 2010
Supreme Court: Judges Can Decline to Award Fees in FEHA Cases
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that a Los Angeles police officer who won a small damage award in an anti-discrimination suit against the city was not entitled to recover attorney fees.
Unanimously reversing this district’s Court of Appeal, the justices explained that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu had discretion to deny fees to Robert Chavez solely because Chavez’s $11,500 recovery was less than the general jurisdictional threshold.
Chavez filed suit in 2004 alleging claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act for employment discrimination, harassment on the basis of a perceived mental disability, and unlawful retaliation. He sought recovery for five days’ lost pay and benefits and for emotional distress, and punitive damages.
Fee Request Denied
Following a five-day jury trial, Chavez was awarded $1,500 in economic damages and $10,000 for his emotional distress, but no punitive damages. His attorney, Rochelle Evans Jackson, then moved for $871,000 in attorney fees, but Treu awarded nothing.
The judge cited Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1033(a)—which allows a trial court to deny costs to a plaintiff who is awarded less than the $25,000 minimum separating limited and general civil jurisdiction—as the basis for his decision.
However, Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal reversed, saying Treu applied the wrong statutory standard. Writing for the appellate court, Justice Madeleine Flier said Sec. 1033(a) 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,” she wrote.
Flier added that the FEHA and Sec 1033(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.” She also noted that Treu had made no special circumstance findings.
‘No Irreconcilable Conflict’
But, Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the Supreme Court, reasoned that there was “no irreconcilable conflict” between the two provisions since “there is no indication in the statutory provisions governing FEHA actions or those governing limited civil cases that the Legislature has ever intended to prohibit the use of limited civil case procedures for the prosecution of FEHA claims.”
She suggested that a plaintiff’s failure to “take advantage of the time- and cost-saving features of the limited civil case procedures” could be considered a special circumstance that would render a fee award unjust.
“If, based on the available information, the plaintiff’s attorney might reasonably have expected to be able to present substantial evidence supporting a FEHA damages award in an amount exceeding the damages limit (now $25,000) for a limited civil case, or if the plaintiff’s attorney might reasonably have concluded that the action could not be fairly and effectively litigated as a limited civil case, the trial court should not deny attorney fees merely because, for example, the trier of fact ultimately rejected the testimony of the plaintiff’s witnesses or failed to draw inferences that were reasonably supported, although not compelled, by the plaintiff’s evidence,” Kennard said.
“But if, to the contrary, the trial court is firmly persuaded that the plaintiff’s attorney had no reasonable basis to anticipate a FEHA damages award in excess of the amount recoverable in a limited civil case, and also that the action could have been fairly and effectively litigated as a limited civil case, the trial court may deny, in whole or in part, the plaintiff’s claim for attorney fees and other litigation costs.”
Noting that Chavez’s success was “modest at best”—only recovering damages as to one claim after the rest were dismissed or found to be lacking in merit—and the attorney fee request for 1,851.43 attorney hours was “grossly inflated” when considered in light of the single claim on which Chavez prevailed, Kennard concluded that Treu had not abused his discretion in declining to issue a fee award.
Los Angeles attorney Lisa R. Jaskol and Deputy City Attorney Beth D. Orellana argued the case, which is Chavez v. City of Los Angeles, 10 S.O.S. 155.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company