It has long been the rule in California that the prevailing party in a discrimination or harassment claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act is entitled to recover costs. A prevailing plaintiff is also entitled to automatically receive an attorneys’ fee award, while a prevailing defendant needed to prove that the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous or otherwise unreasonably brought or pursued. Although fee awards are difficult to obtain for prevailing employers, the ability to recover costs has served as a useful deterrent against marginal claims.
However, in a disappointing ruling for California employers, on May 4, 2015, the California Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District that an employer’s ability to recover its costs after prevailing in a discrimination or harassment case is subject to the same “objectively without foundation” standard that applies to attorneys’ fee awards. The Court concluded the legislature intended for the Fair Employment and Housing Act to provide an exception to the general rule that a prevailing defendant is automatically entitled to recover costs, and imposing the higher standard of proof on a prevailing defendant’s cost application was consistent with California’s policy not to chill the vindication of employees’ rights under the FEHA.
What This Means
An employer will no longer be able to automatically recover costs in a FEHA case, even if it proves a plaintiff’s case has no merit. This further reduces the downside risk for employees and their attorneys who file baseless claims, and removes an important tool for employers to resolve unmeritorious claims.