Friday, September 6, 2013
C.A. Upholds Attorney-Fee Award Six Times Damages
Trial Judge Found ‘Strong Policy’ in Favor of FEMA Actions Based on Sexual Harassment
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district—citing the “strong public policy” in favor of facilitating lawsuits based on sexual harassment—has upheld a $143,861.87 attorney-fee award in favor of a woman who lost on most of her causes of action and garnered a judgment for only $22,625.
Wednesday’s decision came in an unpublished opinion by Justice Elizabeth Grimes of Div. Eight. It affirms an attorney-fee award by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles F. Palmer in favor of Neenah Tran, a former employee of Beyond Blue, Inc., a now-defunct company that marketed high-end fashion products.
The award of damages was not contested on appeal. In her 2006 complaint, Tran had sought economic damages “in excess of $150,000.”
Tran’s action was based on misconduct by Beyond Blue’s president, Harry Haralambus, who was named as a defendant along with the company, and represented himself on appeal. Tran’s lawyer, throughout the seven years of litigation, was Marina Del Rey attorney R. Jeffery Ward.
Tran won on a cause of action under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which authorizes an award of attorney fees to a prevailing employee/plaintiff. She won on two additional causes of action—for assault and for battery—but lost with respect to nine others.
Under FEMA, an unlimited jurisdiction court, such as that Palmer presides over, may deny attorney fees where the award is less than the court’s jurisdiction minimum of $25,000.
The opinion quotes Palmer as explaining why he was granting fees:
“[T]he court finds that the strong public policy in favor of access to judicial remedies for employees seeking enforcement of rights created under FEHA, and with respect to sexual harassment in particular, and that the nature of the conduct which the court found to have occurred in this case cause the court to exercise its discretion to award attorney’s fees to plaintiff Neenah Tran.”
Grimes found no abuse of discretion.
Haralambus pointed to Chavez v. City of Los Angeles (2010) 47 Cal.4th 970 which upheld the denial of attorney fees to a plaintiff who gained an award of only $11,500 on a FEHA claim. Grimes responded:
“[T]the point in Chavez is that the trial court has discretion to deny fees in a FEHA case that could have been brought as a limited jurisdiction case – not that it must do so.”
Differentiating the facts in Chavez from those in the present case, she said:
“Here, as in Chavez, plaintiff recovered less than the jurisdictional amount on a FEHA claim in an unlimited civil case. But the likeness ends there. In this case, plaintiff’s successful and unsuccessful claims were all based on the same facts.”
Grimes declared that slashing a fee is “appropriate” based on a plaintiff’s “limited success,” but, quoting Chavez, “fees are not reduced when a plaintiff prevails on only one of several factually related and closely intertwined claims.”
There was a reduction of the fees but for a different reason: Palmer ascribed 25 percent of the hours spend by Ward to the unsuccessful prosecution of a FEMA case filed by Tran’s sister.
The complaint in the action brought by Neenah Tran recited instances of Haralambus hugging and attempting to French kiss her, and making offensive personal remarks.
The case is Tran v. Haralambus, B242575.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company