Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District: Prevailing FEHA Defendants Are Not Entitled to Recover Costs Unless the Plaintiff’s Claims Are Frivolous
By: Ashley Tate, The Maloney Firm, APC
On May 4, 2015, The California Supreme Court held in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District, S213100 5/4/15, that a prevailing defendant in a FEHA case should not be awarded litigation costs unless the court finds the action lacked merit. In contrast, prevailing plaintiffs can and ordinarily should receive their costs and attorneys fees. In Williams, the plaintiff Loring Winn Williams sued defendant Chino Valley Independent Fire District for employment discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, “FEHA.” The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant employer, and awarded the defendant its court costs. The plaintiff employee appealed, contending that because plaintiff’s action was not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless, the defendant should not have been awarded its costs.
When a defendant in a FEHA case succeeds against a plaintiff’s non-frivolous claims, can the court order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs of the litigation? In short, no.
Code of Civil Procedure section 1032 guarantees prevailing parties in civil litigation awards of the costs expended in the litigation, “[e]xcept as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” The costs include filing, motion and jury fees, food and lodging costs for sequestered juries, the costs of taking necessary depositions, costs of service of process, fees of ordinary witnesses and of court ordered experts, the costs of transcripts ordered by the court, attachment expenses and surety bond premiums, fees of court reporters and interpreters, and the costs of exhibits helpful to the trier of fact.
The questions in Williams were (1) Is Government Code section 12965(b) an express exception to the general mandate of Code of Civil Procedure section 1032(b) for courts to award fees to prevailing parties? and (2) Is the trial court’s discretion under Section 12965(b) limited when it comes to prevailing defendants? Yes and yes.
FEHA provides an exception to the general rule of Section 1032. Government Code section 12965(b) provides for private actions to enforce the provisions of FEHA, and it states in part, “In civil actions brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party, including the department, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.” (Emphasis added.)
The Supreme Court in Williams determined after a detailed analysis that Government Code section 12965 is in fact an express exception to CCP 1032(b), and it governs costs awards in FEHA actions. This provides the trial court with discretion in making such awards to the prevailing party. But the discretion is much more limited when the prevailing party is the defendant.
The Court analyzed legislative history and case law, concluding that the assymmetrical standard set forth in the 1978 case Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412, applies to discretionary awards of both attorney fees and costs to prevailing FEHA parties. The Court in Christiansburg held that a prevailing defendant receives its attorneys’ fees only if the plaintiff’s action was objectively groundless. Id. The asymmetrical standard set forth in Christiansburg entitles prevailing plaintiffs to attorneys’ fees generally but allows prevailing defendants awards of their attorneys’ fees only when the plaintiffs’ claims were frivolous. Under Williams, the Christiansburg standard applies not only to attorneys’ fees, but also to other litigation costs.
In sum, a prevailing plaintiff in a FEHA case will ordinarily be awarded his or her attorneys’ fees and costs, but a prevailing defendant is not entitled to either unless the court finds the plaintiff’s action was frivolous. This is good news for FEHA plaintiffs, and bad news for the defendants.
The Maloney Firm, APC is a full service law firm based in El Segundo, California. The professionals at The Maloney Firm focus on providing clients with efficient and effective service in business disputes and employment litigation. www.maloneyfirm.com