California Supreme Court Has Made It Much Harder For Defendants To Recover Costs In Discrimination And Harassment CasesDiscrimination Harassment 05.28.2015
When employees file suit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act for harassment or discrimination, they can recover attorney’s fees and court costs if they prevail. Defendants on the other hand cannot recover attorney’s fees if they prevail, unless the Court determines that the suit was utterly baseless and frivolous. Thus, ordinarily there is virtually no risk of such an award, as long as the employee is represented by a competent lawyer who can recognize and avoid frivolous cases. This rule was established to avoid employees from being scared off from filing cases about harassment or discrimination they have suffered at work.
However, it has long been the case that defendants could recover litigation costs if they prevailed, whether the case was frivolous or not.
The California Supreme Court recently changed this. It held in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District that court costs could only be recovered where the defendant prevailed and the plaintiff’s case was frivolous. In other words, the Court found that attorney’s fees and costs should be treated the same and recoverable under the same circumstances in these kinds of cases.
This case is significant for two reasons. First, it lets employees bring discrimination and harassment cases without the fear of ultimately being found liable for several thousand dollars in court costs, just because the jury didn’t agree with them. Second, other courts may expand this ruling into other kinds of employment claims – such as for overtime, whistleblower retaliation, and other sorts of claims where there are specific statutes that govern awards of attorney’s fees and costs.