California Supreme Court Says Employers Can’t Recover Costs in Non-Frivolous Discrimination Suits

california-supreme-courtIf you’ve suffered discrimination at the hands of your employer, you have a lot to worry about. It is very possible your employer wrongfully terminated you. Even if you succeeded in finding a new job, you probably went through a period of joblessness. For many people, the prospect of taking on a lawsuit under such difficult personal financial circumstances can seem beyond daunting. However, in an important new ruling from the California Supreme Court, employees can remove one hurdle and fear from the equation, since the court decided that employers cannot recover costs from non-frivolous discrimination cases filed under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, even if the employer wins on the merits.

The much-anticipated ruling arose from a disability discrimination lawsuit that a firefighter, Loring Winn Williams, launched against the Chino Valley Independent Fire District. In response to the complaint, the district asked the trial court to award it summary judgment and to order the firefighter to pay its costs. The trial court granted the district’s summary judgment motion and awarded the district costs.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court, but, in a ruling issued this spring, the Supreme Court overturned the award of costs. The Supreme Court concluded that employees who pursue FEHA disability discrimination lawsuits generally should not have to pay costs, even if they lose. The court, in reaching this conclusion, followed the reasoning of a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC. In the Christiansburg case, the high court ruled that employees filing Title VII claims generally should not face the fear of having to pay their employer’s attorney fees even if their cases did not succeed at trial. This was done so that employees of limited means would not shy away from bringing meritorious claims due to fears of an unfavorable judgment and an onerous assessment of attorney fees against them. Allowing every employer who ultimately succeeded at trial to recover these fees would thwart Congress’s intent to foster the “vigorous enforcement of the provisions of Title VII.”

Although all federal courts have not extended the Christiansburg rule for attorney fees to costs in Title VII cases, the 9th Circuit has done so in cases alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court acknowledged that employees undertaking FEHA discrimination actions, in many instances, face similar challenges to people undertaking Title VII or ADA actions. Typically, cases of discrimination that violate FEHA are wrongful termination cases. Even if the employee already acquired a new job before suing, that person likely experienced at least some period of unemployment, the court noted. As a result, the California “Legislature could well have believed the potential for a costs award in the tens of thousands of dollars would tend to discourage even potentially meritorious suits by plaintiffs with limited financial resources.”

The court also concluded that in FEHA cases, employers can still recover costs in certain situations. If an employee’s discrimination claim was “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless,” or the employee continued pursuing the case after it became clear that the claim had no merit, the employer should be entitled to recover costs.

The anti-discrimination provisions of FEHA are designed to allow employees who have suffered wrongful discrimination to take an aggressive stance in defending their rights. If you believe your employer has illegally discriminated against you, contact the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys have helped many others facing similar circumstances and are ready to assist you with your case. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Employers Not Required to Eliminate Essential Job Duties to Accommodate Employees With Disabilities, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, March 13, 2015

Court Declares Employers Must Pay for Work-Related Calls Made on Employees’ Personal Cell Phones, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Oct. 15, 2014