You may recall from your college business law class of the “American rule” regarding attorney’s fees: generally in the United States each side is responsible to their own attorney’s fees, and unlike other countries, the loser does not have to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. Employers can basically ignore this general rule in employment litigation under California law.
I debated about writing this article because once a lawsuit is filed, employers don’t have any control over what claims and damages the plaintiff will assert, so why would employers need to understand when they have exposure to a current or former employee’s attorney’s fees in litigation? However, employers need to understand the underlying liability of potential claims, the motivations behind those claims, and the major part of many employment law claims can be attorney’s fees. And as shown below, the California legislature has used the award of attorney’s fees to shift the risk in many actions against employers, and it is a concept that employers need to understand to address liability and litigation strategies.
Here are five California employment related statutes that can expose employers to a plaintiff’s attorney’s fees:
1. Minimum wage/unpaid overtime claims.
Labor Code section 1194, provides attorneys fees for plaintiffs who recover damages for minimum wage or overtime violations:
Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action … reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.
2. Unsuccessful appeal of Labor Commissioner Claim.
In order to discourage appeals from Labor Commissioner rulings, California Labor Code section 98.2(c) requires the court “shall” awards costs and reasonably attorney’s fees to the other party. This section permits the employee to obtain fees on an unsuccessful appeal by the employer, or to the employer who prevails on an unsuccessful appeal by employee. The catch for employers however, is that Labor Code section 98.2(c) provides that the employee is “successful” and therefore entitled to attorney’s fees “if the court awards an amount greater than zero.” Yes, even if the employee receives $1, they are successful in the appeal, and are entitled to their attorney’s fees. Therefore, employers have a huge disincentive in appealing Labor Commissioner rulings.
3. Expense reimbursement claims
Labor Code section 2802 provides that employers must pay for and reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence” of the employee’s job. Therefore, items like mileage reimbursement, even personal cell phone expenses, or other out-of-pocket expenditures employees make while performing their job must be reimbursed by the employer. Labor Code section 2802(c) provides that the employee is entitled to “attorney’s fees incurred by the employee enforcing the rights granted by this section.”
4. Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) claims
Plaintiff’s counsel bringing a PAGA claim can seeks attorney’s fees under this statute as well. See Labor Code section 2699(g). Plaintiffs’ attorneys also claims fees under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which permits them to recover fees if the case “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest” if certain requirements are satisfied.
5. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits harassment and discrimination in employment based on protected categories and/or retaliation for protesting illegal discrimination related to one of these categories. “In civil actions brought under [FEHA], the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party . . . reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.” (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).)
Under FEHA, the fee shifting provision goes both ways, to the plaintiff but also potentially the employer. Courts have discretion to award the defendant employer attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing party in cases where plaintiff’s claim is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. As a California court recently explained:
Despite its discretionary language, however, the statute applies only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious. . . . ‘ “[M]eritless” is to be understood as meaning groundless or without foundation, rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case . . . .’
Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal.App4th 67 (2014).