I am two thirds of the way through a three part post on attorneys’ fees, and have gotten a little bogged down (the pesky details of my law practice have gotten in the way of long posts). At any rate, the first post, on the contractual right to fees, is here. The second, dealing with fees in civil rights, employment and public interest litigation, is here. The final installment will cover fees in consumer litigation, and (I hope) it will be up in the next ten days or so.
But a recent decision, Villanueva v. City of Colton (2008) ___Cal.App.4th___ (4th Dist., E042188) reminds me that I should have mentioned the rare circumstance under which a successful defendant can be awarded attorneys’ fees against an unsuccessful plaintiff under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Fundamentally, the situation is this:
Government Code section 12965(b) authorizes an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs “to the prevailing party” in a FEHA action. But, tracking the comparable provisions in Federal Title VII actions and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412,421, California courts have held that a prevailing defendant can be awarded attorneys’ fees only if the suit is objectively “frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.” Rosenmann v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 859; Cummings v. Benco Building Services (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1383.
In order to ensure that plaintiffs are not unduly punished for asserting their civil rights, Rosenman requires that, before awarding fees to a defendant, the trial court must make findings that the plaintiff is capable of paying. The same holding appears in Jersey v. John Muir Medical Center (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 814, where the court of appeal also reversed a trial court of fees against the plaintiff based on a finding of “no merit” – not the proper standard.
In the recent Villanueva decision, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence of his inability to pay attorneys’ fees other than showing that he earned $25 per hour. The court of appeal held that without such evidence, the trial court’s award of fees could not be an abuse of discretion, effectively placing the burden of proof on this issue, or at least the burden of going forward, on the plaintiff.