Attorney Fee Awards Keep Them Honest: Court Upholds $700,000 Fee Award In Gender Discrimination Case
On December 5, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $700,000 attorney fee award in a case where the Plaintiff was only awarded $27,280 in damages and lost the majority of her claims. The case is Muniz v. UPS. Kim Muniz sued her employer, UPS, claiming that she was discriminated against based upon age and gender and that she was negligently supervised and retaliated against while employed. Her claims were based upon the fact that Muniz had received a performance improvement plan and later demoted from division manager to supervisor based upon her alleged unsatisfactory performance.
Almost all of Muniz’s claims were defeated or dismissed prior to trial. The only claim that was advanced at trial was Muniz’s claim that her demotion was based upon gender/sex employment discrimination. The trial court found that Muniz’s gender was a substantial factor in UPS’s decision to demote her, that the decision caused her harm and that UPS would not have demoted her otherwise. Muniz was awarded $27,280 with respect to her gender/sex based discrimination claim.
Muniz’s gender/sex discrimination claim was brought pursuant to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). FEHA prohibits harassment and discrimination in employment because of race, color, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, medical condition, age and pregnancy, among other things. FEHA also prohibits retaliation by an employer against an employee for protesting illegal discrimination of one of the covered categories. FEHA allows prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorney’s fees “unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” On the other hand, FEHA only allows an employer, who successfully defends a FEHA claim, to recover attorney’s fees if the plaintiff’s claim was “frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.”
After Muniz was awarded $27,280 in damages, her attorneys filed a motion for their attorney’s fees under FEHA. The trial court reduced the attorney’s fees originally requested but still awarded $700,000 in attorney’s fees. UPS appealed claiming that the attorney’s fees were not reduced enough and that the amount of attorney’s fees awarded were disproportionate to the damages awarded. The Ninth Circuit disagreed relying heavily on the deferential standard applied to trial court determinations of attorney fee awards.
This case is significant for three reasons. First, it showcases how powerful attorney’s fees provisions can be in deterring misconduct by organizations and individuals who believe they have the bank roll to out-litigate any aggrieved parties. Second, it gives the trial courts continued wide discretion in determining the amount of attorney’s fee awarded in these cases. Third, it provides attorneys with the incentive to take cases where parties have suffered little damages but the conduct of the wrongdoer is still in violation of the law.
The Piccuta Law Group, LLP handles several claims that involve statutes containing attorney fee’s provisions. These statutes include, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, FEHA and other civil rights related statutes, just to name a few. If you think you have a case under any of these statutes, contact the Piccuta Law Group, LLP today for a free consultation.