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University Entitled to Fee Award after Defending Meritless Discrimination Claim, California Court Rules

  • March 6, 2014

Finding an employee’s lawsuit under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) was “without merit[,] frivolous and vexatious,” the California Court of Appeal has affirmed an award of attorneys’ fees in the amount of $100,000 in favor of the employer. Robert v. Stanford Univ., No. H037514 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 25, 2014). The Court further ruled that the trial court was not required to issue a separate written opinion to support its ruling.

Background

Francis Robert was employed by Stanford University from 1997 to 2008, when the University terminated his employment for his alleged harassment of another employee. 

Following his termination, Robert sued the University for race discrimination under the FEHA. Robert, however, failed to identify any evidence that supported his claim. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the University. The University filed a motion seeking to recover the more than $235,000 in attorney’s fees it incurred in defending Robert’s lawsuit . 

Awarding the University $100,000 in attorney’s fees, the trial court found that Robert’s “FEHA claim was without merit and was frivolous and vexatious. It was a legal theory in search of facts. There were none that were presented.” Robert appealed.

Applicable Law

In an action under FEHA, the trial court may award to the prevailing party reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees. Cal. Gov’t Code § 12965(b). However, the statute applies to a prevailing defendant, often an employer, only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious. A trial court awarding attorney’s fees to a prevailing defendant must make “express written findings” demonstrating that it has applied the proper standards.

Written Findings for Fee Award Incorporated

Roberts argued that the attorney’s fee award must be reversed because the trial court failed to make express written findings supporting the award. The appellate court rejected this argument. The Court noted the trial court incorporated the fee award into its written judgment. Further, the trial court made express oral findings supporting the award. The Court found the record demonstrated the trial court applied the correct legal standard and affirmed the attorney’s fee award.

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This case is a positive development for employers confronted with meritless FEHA claims and may be cited as support for a fee award. 

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