The California Supreme Court recently upheld a trial court ruling denying a plaintiff’s request for $871,000 in claimed attorneys’ fees for various lawsuits against his employer. In Chavez v. Los Angeles, after a tortured history of federal and state actions against his employer for discrimination, harassment, retaliation and a variety of other torts, a jury ultimately awarded the plaintiff $11,500 – $1,500 in damages and $10,000 for emotional distress – for one act of retaliation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Typically, prevailing plaintiffs may recover their attorneys’ fees for successful FEHA claims, but the trial court denied the plaintiff’s $871,000 request.
The California Supreme Court recognized that the trial court acted within its discretion in denying the request for two reasons. First, the request was “grossly inflated” in light of the plaintiff’s limited success on a single claim, the limited damages awarded and the amount of time an attorney might reasonably spend pursuing such a claim.
Second, as cited by the trial court, California allows plaintiffs to file claims of less than $25,000 as limited civil actions, which are subject to streamlined and more cost-efficient procedural rules. When a plaintiff recovers less than $25,000 but failed to bring the action as a limited civil action, the California Code of Civil Procedure authorizes the trial court to deny costs to the prevailing plaintiff. The California Supreme Court held that requests for attorneys’ fees under FEHA, in appropriate circumstances, fall within this provision and a court may even deny a fees request, as in Chavez, so long as its decision takes into account the policies and purposes of the FEHA.
While it is always important for attorneys to realistically consider their clients’ claims and damages, the California Supreme Court’s recognition of the discretion afforded trial courts in awarding attorneys’ fees will hopefully temper a common assumption that successful FEHA plaintiffs will automatically receive all of their claimed attorneys’ fees. This, in turn, should provide employers with some ammunition to resist exorbitant demands for attorneys’ fees during settlement negotiations.