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Trial Court Was Wrong To Reduce Former Employee’s Request For Attorney’s Fees
Renee Vines sued his former employer, O’Reilly Auto Enterprises (O’Reilly) for race and age-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Vines, a 59-year-old Black man, contended his supervisor and others created false and misleading reviews of him, yelled at him, and denied his requests for training that younger, non-Black employees had received. Vines also claimed that although he repeatedly complained to O’Reilly’s management regarding the harassment and discrimination, O’Reilly took no remedial action. Instead, he alleged the company began investigating him in order to find a reason to terminate his employment. At the investigator’s recommendation, O’Reilly terminated Vines.
The trial court granted judgment for O’Reilly’s on Vines’ age harassment and age discrimination claims, finding that Vines had failed to present any evidence his age had anything to do with his termination or O’Reilly’s alleged discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. However, Vines’ race-based and retaliation claims proceeded to a jury trial. The jury then returned a verdict in favor of Vines for his retaliation claim, but against him on his race discrimination and harassment causes of action. The jury awarded Vines $70,200 in damages.
Following the jury trial, Vines moved the court for an award of $809,681.25 in attorneys’ fees. Vines supported his motion with multiple attorney declarations, billing records, and other exhibits. For example, one of Vines’ attorneys responded to multiple rounds of written discovery, took more than 10 depositions in several states, and participated in a 10-day jury trial. O’Reilly argued that Vines was not the prevailing party for purposes of an award of attorneys’ fees, but even if he was, his fee request should be denied or reduced because the number of fees he requested was excessive given the nominal jury award and Vines’ limited success. Vines had only prevailed on two of his six claims, and while the jury awarded just over $70,000 in damages, Vines had sought over $2.5 million. They also argued that Vines’ claim for attorneys’ fees included unreasonable billing entries and hourly rates. The trial court issued an order awarding Vines $129,540.44 in attorneys’ fees. The trial court found that Vines’ unsuccessful discrimination and harassment claims were not significantly related or intertwined with his successful retaliation claim so as to support his request for $809,681.25 in fees. Vines appealed.
Under the FEHA, a court has the discretion to award attorneys’ fees and costs. In order to calculate an attorneys’ fee award under the FEHA, courts generally use the well-established lodestar method, which is the product of the number of hours spent on the cases, times, and applicable hourly rate. The court then has the discretion to increase or reduce the lodestar by applying a positive or negative “multiplier” based on a number of factors.
In California, the extent of an employee’s success is a crucial factor in determining the number of a prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees. When a prevailing party succeeds on only some claims, courts make a two-part inquiry: first, did the employee prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded? Second, did the employee achieve a level of success that makes the hours expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award? If, however, a lawsuit consists of related claims, the attorneys’ fee awarded for an employee who has obtained “substantial relief” should not be reduced merely for the reason the employee did not succeed on each contention raised.
On appeal, Vines argued that the trial court erred when it found that his unsuccessful claims were not sufficiently related to his successful claims. He argued that the trial court failed to recognize that he had to prove the conduct underlying his discrimination and harassment claims in order to prove the reasonableness of his belief that the conduct was unlawful, as was required to succeed on his retaliation cause of action. The California Court of Appeal agreed. In order for Vines to prevail on his retaliation claim, he had to show that his beliefs that O’Reilly was discriminating and harassing him against him were reasonable.
Vines also argued that the trial court wrongly reduced fees for specific billing entries that O’Reilly had contended were unreasonable, such as reducing by two-thirds the number of fees for the depositions of witnesses in Missouri, not awarding certain fees for travel, and reducing Vines’ attorney’s hourly rate from $525 to $425, among other things. The court concluded that Vines forfeited his challenge to those reductions by making those arguments too late. In any event, the court reversed the trial court’s award and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
Vines v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, 2022 WL 189840 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 21, 2022).
Fee awards to prevailing employees in FEHA cases promote the important public policy in favor of eliminating discrimination in the workplace. This case demonstrates that even if an employee wins nominal damages, attorneys’ fees can be substantial.