Laura Young was terminated after closing down a 24-hour service station for several hours, in violation of company policy, sued her employer and her supervisor, Angela Lopez (the station manager), alleging claims of harassment on the basis of mental disability, retaliation, and wrongful termination, among others.

The employer and supervisor won summary judgment, ending the case. Lopez, the supervisor personally sued by plaintiff, filed a motion for attorney fees under Government Code section 12965, contending that Exxon, on behalf of Lopez, incurred substantial attorney fees defending Young’s “unreasonable, frivolous, and meritless claims against Lopez individually.” Lopez sought $18,750 in attorney fees (which comprised ¼ of the total attorney’s fees in the case). The court agreed that plaintiff’s claims against the supervisor were frivolous, which entitled the supervisor reimbursement of attorney’s fees.  However, the trial court only awarded nominal attorney fees of $1.00. The supervisor appealed this ruling, seeking additional attorney’s fees.

In only allowing Lopez to recover $1.00 in attorney’s fees, the trial court noted that an award to Lopez “would actually be an award to Exxon, which does not claim [Young’s] claims against it were frivolous.” The trial court concluded this “does not seem right,” and awarded nominal attorney fees of $1.00.

The appellate court here up held the trial court’s nominal attorney fee award of $1.00. The court stated:

In actions under the FEHA, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party. (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).) California courts have followed federal law, and hold that, in exercising its discretion, a trial court should ordinarily award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff, unless special circumstances would render an award of fees unjust. A prevailing defendant, however, should be awarded fees under the FEHA only “in the rare case in which the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” (Rosenman v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 859, 864 (Rosenman).) Rosenman cites the high court’s observation that the strong equitable considerations supporting an attorney fee award to a prevailing plaintiff – including that fees are being awarded against a violator of federal law, and that the federal policy being vindicated by the plaintiff is of the highest priority – are not present in the case of a prevailing defendant. (Id. at p. 865, citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412, 418-419 (Christiansburg).)

The appellate court approved that the trial court has discretion to set the amount of attorney’s fees recoverable to a prevailing defendant, providing the following four reasons:

  1. That the Rosenman case sets the standard by which to measure the exercise of the trial court’s discretion in awarding attorney fees to a prevailing defendant in an FEHA case: namely, only in the “rare case” in which the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.
  2. As Exxon argued, there are many cases in which the courts have awarded attorney fees to prevailing parties who, like Lopez, are not actually liable for or have not incurred or paid fees. But in all those cases, the attorney fee award actually benefits the prevailing party or an entity which has provided the services and would otherwise not be compensated for them.
  3. There was no evidence that Exxon incurred fees on Lopez’s behalf that it would not have incurred had Lopez not been named as a defendant.
  4. As the Rosenman case instructs, the trial courts should “make findings as to the plaintiff’s ability to pay attorney fees, and how large the award should be in light of the plaintiff’s financial situation.”

The case, Young v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, can be downloaded from the court’s website here.