California has a reputation for employment litigation: it is the state where everyone seems to feel obliged to sue their boss for something.
While some suits have merit and others are understandable, there are suits by current or former employees that have no substance; suits that seem to be designed to do nothing more than cause pain for the employer and gain a nuisance value settlement.
What is truly news is when the conventions get turned upside down.
In Robert v. Stanford University, California Court of Appeal Case No. H037514 (February 25, 2014), plaintiff Francis Robert was terminated by Stanford University due to his harassment of a fellow employee; his termination followed repeated warnings and the entry of a restraining order to protect that fellow employee. Robert nonetheless brought a claim that this was a pretext for race discrimination. In discovery, Robert admittedly could not identify any evidence of race discrimination other than his own opinion. After the close of evidence at trial, Stanford successfully moved for nonsuit in its favor with respect to the discrimination claims.
Stanford, however, had incurred over $235,000 in fees defending the case. Thus, it filed a motion to recover its fees. The trial judge granted Stanford’s motion and awarded it $100,000: “I am finding that the FEHA claim was without merit and was frivolous and vexatious. It was a legal theory in search of facts. There were none that were presented.”
The Appellate Court upheld this award of fees to the defendant employer. It noted that the“complete absence of evidence to support [Robert’s] FEHA claim reflected its meritless nature, and the timing of his initiation of this lawsuit after the restraining order was also upheld by the appellate court] indicated that his action was intended to harass Stanford.”
While it remains difficult to recover attorneys’ fees from a vexatious former employee, this case reminds employers that such recovery is possible when a case is brought in bad faith.