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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District: Supreme Court Rules on Cost Awards to Prevailing Defendants in FEHA Actions

Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District (5/4/15) --- Cal.4th --- concerns whether a prevailing defendant in a FEHA action may recover its ordinary costs absent a finding that the plaintiff brought or continued the litigation without an objective basis for believing that it had merit.

Plaintiff Loring Winn Williams sued defendant Chino Valley Independent Fire District for disability discrimination. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant and awarded it $5,368.88 in costs. The Court of Appeal affirmed, but the Supreme Court reversed, holding as follows:

CCP section 1032(b) mandates that prevailing parties recover their costs as a matter of right, "except as otherwise expressly provided by statute." Government Code section 12965(b) allows courts, in their discretion, to award attorney fees and costs to prevailing parties in FEHA actions. Section 12965(b) thus constitutes an express exception to section 1032(b) and as a result, trial courts have discretion to award ordinary costs to prevailing defendants, but need not do so.

In exercising this discretion, courts must follow the rule set forth in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412. In Christiansburg, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prevailing plaintiff in a Title VII action ordinarily should be awarded his or her fees but should not be assessed his or her opponent's fees unless a court finds that the claim was "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so."

Christiansburg applies equally to awards of attorney fees and costs in FEHA actions: a prevailing plaintiff ordinarily should recover his or her fees and costs unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust, but a prevailing defendant should not recover its fees or costs unless the court finds the action was "objectively without foundation when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so."

The opinion is available here. 

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