Attorney’s Fees Awarded to Prevailing Defendant in Discrimination Case

By March 21, 2014Articles

In the recent case of Francis Robert v. Stanford University, Plaintiff appealed an award of attorney’s fees granted to Stanford University after Stanford successfully defended a statutory claim of racial discrimination under Government Code section 12940, also known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

Francis Robert was terminated by the university for harassment of a female coworker. Plaintiff subsequently filed a racial discrimination lawsuit under FEHA alleging that he was terminated based on his “native ancestry” and not because of harassment of another employee. Other than his own testimony, Plaintiff failed to produce any factual evidence of his claim of discrimination. The jury found for Stanford. Following trial, Stanford filed a motion to recover reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in defending the action. The university was awarded $100,000 in fees under FEHA as the prevailing party.

In civil actions bought under the FEHA, the court may exercise its own discretion and award attorney’s fees and costs to the defendant as the prevailing party in cases where the FEHA discrimination claim is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. Under existing case law, the court however, must consider the financial condition of the plaintiff and make “express written findings” demonstrating it applied the proper legal standard.

Robert argued that the award of attorney’s fees must be reversed because the record did not reflect any written findings were made on this issue. Upholding the award of fees to Stanford, the court of appeal rejected the “written findings” requirement.

The court reasoned that unless no basis existed for the court’s award of fees to Stanford, the failure to put findings in writing does not by itself justify reversal. Article VI, Section 13 of the California Constitution provides that a judgment cannot be set aside unless after review of the entire case, “the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” Furthermore, the Code of Civil Procedure section 475 provides reversal is only appropriate where it affects the “substantial rights of the parties …, the appellant sustained and suffered substantial injury, and a different result would have been probable if such error had not occurred.”

The trial court’s oral findings were found to be sufficient because the findings demonstrated that the proper standard was applied in granting an award of legal fees to Stanford University as the prevailing party, and that Plaintiff’s financial condition was also considered.

To read this case, click here: Francis Robert v. Stanford University