Thursday, May 6, 2010
Court Revives Action Seeking Attorney Fees for EEOC Proceedings
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday clarified that federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over claims brought solely to recover attorney’s fees incurred in administrative proceedings before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Writing for the appellate panel, Judge Stephen Reinhardt concluded that Ronald Porter did not need to claim a substantive civil rights violation in order to challenge the fee award he received from the EEOC after prevailing on his retaliation claim against his former employer, the U.S. Navy.
Reinhardt explained that U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill of the Eastern District of California erred in dismissing Porter’s complaint for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in New York Gaslight Club, Inc. v. Carey, 447 U.S. 54.
Carey involved a complaint in district court seeking attorney’s fees, back pay, and other relief under Title VII, but the parties agreed to dismiss all claims except the request for attorney’s fees, a portion of which was based on expenses incurred in state administrative proceedings.
The court ruled that “[t]he words of [42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k)] leave little doubt that fee awards are authorized for legal work done in ‘proceedings’ other than court actions,” including federal and state administrative proceedings, and that Title VII authorizes “a civil suit in federal court…solely to obtain an award of attorney’s fees for legal work done in state and local proceedings.”
Reinhardt noted that the Fourth Circuit has ruled that Carey did not apply to the instant factual situation since the original complaint in Carey asserted substantive Title VII claims in addition to the claim for attorney’s fees, but he joined the Eighth Circuit in concluding that this was a distinction without a difference.
He reasoned that “the Carey majority stated its conclusion in a manner that clearly applies to claims originally brought solely to recover attorney’s fees incurred in Title VII administrative proceedings.”
The jurist also rejected the Navy’s argument that Carey’s holding was limited by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in North Carolina Department of Transportation v. Crest Street Community Council, Inc., (1986) 479 U.S. 6.
In Crest Street, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether attorney fees could be awarded under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act in a separate federal action, not to enforce any of the civil rights laws listed in 42 U.S.C. § 1988, but solely to recover attorney’s fees.
The Eighth and Tenth Circuits have held that Crest Street did not in any manner modify or overrule Carey since Crest Street involved the interpretation of Sec.1988, while Carey involved the interpretation of Title VII, and Reinhardt agreed with them.
“[A]lthough both cases construed fee shifting provisions, the two provisions utilize different statutory language and appear within different statutory schemes,” Reinhardt said. He further emphasized that Crest Street’s ruling was based in part on the meaning of the phrase “to enforce,” which is absent from Title VII’s fee shifting provision, and the legislative history of Sec. 1988, which would not apply to Title VII.
Even if the panel was not bound to follow Carey’s interpretation of Title VII, the structure of Title VII and the plain language of its fee shifting provision would compel it to reach the same result, Reinhardt added.
“Because 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(f)(1) and 2000e-5(k) authorize a civil suit in federal court solely to recover attorney’s fees for legal work done in administrative proceedings, Porter’s claim qualifies as an ‘action[ ] brought under this subchapter’ for purposes of Title VII’s jurisdictional grant,” he said.
Judges Mary M. Schroeder and Carlos T. Bea joined Reinhardt in his decision.
The case is Porter v. Winter, 07-17120.
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