An opinion filed last Friday by the California Court of Appeal serves as an important reminder that an attorney fee award may very well be the most expensive part of a liability finding under California’s discrimination statute.  Chavez v. City of Los Angeles, 2008 WL 467432 (Cal. App. Feb. 22, 2008).
Chavez, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, sued his employer, the City of Los Angeles, and three supervisors for discrimination based on a perceived disability and retaliation for complaining about harassment and discrimination.  Chavez sought recovery for these alleged FEHA violations, including five days of lost pay and benefits, emotional distress and punitive damages.  The jury awarded Chavez $11,500 in compensatory damages (no punitive damages were awarded).
Following trial, Chavez moved for $870,935.50 in attorneys’ fees as the prevailing plaintiff under FEHA. The trial court entered an order denying the motion, based on its finding that the amount was unreasonable in light of the case’s limited jurisdiction and the size of the jury verdict.
The Court of Appeal vacated the order and remanded the case to the trial court. The Court expressed “no opinion regarding the amount of the fees due Chavez” and recognized that Chavez must establish on remand that the fees he seeks “were reasonably incurred.” However, the Court concluded that the lower court abused its discretion in its outright denial of fees, and reiterated that the size of a fee award should not depend on the amount of damages a plaintiff recovers. The Court stated: “Nothing in this record evidences special circumstances sufficient to render an award of fees unjust, apart from the modest verdict, which itself provides an insufficient basis to deny a prevailing plaintiff attorney fees under FEHA.”
Click here to read the full opinion.
Keesal, Young & Logan Employment Group