In a recent, unpublished opinion Myres v. San Francisco Housing Authority, a California Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s order reducing the amount of costs a plaintiff had claimed as a result of limited success at trial.
The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) employed Beverly Bernell Myres for several years before it decided to terminate her employment as part of a restructuring of the department where Myres worked. The SFHA laid off Myres and almost everyone in her department. At the time of her discharge, Myres was working part-time because she had suffered an on-the-job knee injury that resulted in her doctor recommending work restrictions. She remained on disability leave until the date of her separation. Myres then sued the SFHA for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, hostile work environment, retaliation, and wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
At trial, Myres prevailed only on her hostile work environment claim, and the jury awarded her $35,000. Myres filed a motion for $15,627.81 in prevailing party costs and $221,374 in attorneys’ fees. She also requested that the court apply a multiplier of 1.5 for an attorneys’ fees award totaling $332,061.75. The trial court offered Myres the opportunity to file supplemental papers segregating the time spent on the harassment claim alone, but her counsel declined, saying it was impossible to allocate the time spent on each, individual cause of action.
After taking the matter under submission, the trial court awarded $78,750 in attorneys’ fees (a 76 percent reduction) and struck $7,642.46 from Myres’s costs. Myres appealed.
The Court of Appeal upheld the reduced attorney fee award but reversed the reduced cost award. In upholding the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees, the appellate court explained that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in the fee award and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the appellate court should review the motion for fees under a de novo standard. The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s rejection of Myres’s request for a lodestar multiplier because, according to the court, the trial court had appropriately found that the case lacked complexity and did not confer a public benefit.
In reversing the trial court’s order regarding costs, the appellate court relied on the recent case of Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District (May 4, 2015, S213100 –Cal.4th–(2015). In Williams, the Supreme Court of California held that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act “does not significantly lessen the availability of costs to a prevailing FEHA plaintiff” and that a “prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily receive his or her costs and attorney fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Relying on this precedent, the appellate court held that the trial court failed to consider whether the award would be unjust. The court directed the trial court to consider whether special circumstances would render the costs at issue unjust, and if not, the trial court should award the plaintiff her full costs.