Court of Appeal: No Defense Attorneys' Fees for Frivolous Claims?

The Court of Appeal agreed with the district court that Laura Young's FEHA claim for harassment against her former supervisor was frivolous, vexatious, etc. The trial court, however, awarded only one dollar in attorneys' fees against Young. The court's rationale was that since employer Exxon was going to pay the supervisor's fees, and since Exxon did not complain that the action against Exxon itself was frivolous, the court should not award fees that Exxon would ultimately recover.

Does that make a lot of sense? Yes, but only if you're gutting the attorneys' fees statute. Employers are responsible to pay for employees' defense costs under Labor Code section 2802, unless the employee is found to have engaged in actual unlawful harassment. So, a frivolous claim against an employee by implication is part of the claim against the employer, no? And given most claims against individual managers are barred as a matter of law, and given awards of attorneys' fees are as rare as hen's teeth anyway, one would think that a court would want to give effect to the Legislature's decision to permit an award of attorneys' fees when claims are frivolous. Right?

No. The court of appeal agreed with the trial court and held that where, as in this case, the employer is paying an individual employee's defense costs, the trial court need not award attorneys' fees if the claim against the employer is not frivolous. You don't believe me? Here's the quote:
In short, despite its finding that Young’s case against Lopez was frivolous and vexatious, the trial court had the discretion to deny attorney fees to Lopez. Because the award would benefit only Exxon, a defendant which was not otherwise entitled to an award and which did not show it incurred any significant fees on Lopez’s behalf that it would not have incurred in any event, we see no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision.

By the way, the attorneys' fees statute, Government Code section 12965(b) is very simple and says nothing about differing standards for employers and employees.
In actions brought under this section,the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party reasonable attorney's fees and costs, including expert witness fees, except where the action is filed by a public agency or a public official, acting in an official capacity.
The statute says nothing about basing awards on who pays the fees. I know it says "discretion," but the courts have held that prevailing plaintiffs are generally entitled to fees as a matter of right, while prevailing defendants have a heavy burden to establish the claims were "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." I think the courts may have lost sight of the plain language of the statute over the years.

While I'm complaining, the Court of Appeal also decided not to publish its analysis of Young's claims on the merits. That means the bar will not benefit from the court's detailed analysis of Young's claims for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, etc. The decision should be published if only because Young claimed a mental disability and that her outbursts and conduct in violation of policy were attributable to the disability. The Court distinguished Gambini v. Total Renal Care, discussed here, and held that Young's disability did not exempt her from termination for her misconduct.

Anyway, I'm sure Exxon is happy to have won the case. But there was a dark lining in a silver cloud that may affect employment litigation for the rest of us. The opinion in Young v. Exxon is here.