On May 4, 2015, the California Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District that a successful defendant in a FEHA case can get awarded its attorneys’ fees and costs only when “the plaintiff brought or continued litigating the action without an objective basis for believing it had potential merit.” In other words, it’s not enough for the defendant simply to show that it prevailed at trial on the FEHA claim. According to the Court, “a prevailing defendant…should not awarded fees and costs unless the Court finds the action was objectively without merit when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate it when it became so.”
This ruling should have a dramatic impact on California employees who bring FEHA discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claims. Now, these employees will no longer have to fear that, if they lose their case, they will face a potentially bankrupting award of fees and costs to their employers. In addition, employees often faced incentives to settle their cases because of their fear of a potentially large cost award to their employers. Employers leveraged this fear and often offered to settle plaintiff’s cases in exchange for a “waiver of costs.” This strategy will likely be less successful for employers in the future because this decision raises the bar for getting those costs awarded.
You can read the Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District opinion here.