Ninth Circuit Pretty Much Kills Most Attorneys' Fees Awards to Employers

In a case where the court readily acknowledged that the plaintiff's claims were frivolous, the court invented a whole new standard for awarding attorney's fees.  The fees statute says the "prevailing party" is entitled to "reasonable attorney's fees."  Then the courts said that employers can recover fees only if the plaintiff's claims are frivolous. 

In this case, Harris v. Maricopa County Superior Court, the court of appeals decided if the plaintiff asserts multiple claims, the defendant can recover fees only on the amount of time spent exclusively on frivolous claims.  So, let's say  the defense counsel spends time that overlaps on frivolous and non-frivolous claims - the attorneys' fees cannot be recovered at all.

In essence, they might as well have said, "if there are multiple claims, unless they are all 100% frivolous, the defendant shouldn't even bother trying for attorney's fees."  Instead, the court hides its true intention by setting a new standard ensuring it's impossible to recover fees, without really saying so. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who has never met a plaintiff he didn't like, laughed at employers like this:

Although the court may not have erred in determining that the claim was frivolous, it nonetheless erred in awarding substantial fees to defendants on this claim. Almost every time entry in defendants’ fee petition for work related to the hostile work environment claim was also listed as related to some or all of Harris’s nonfrivolous discrimination claims. As we have already explained, in a civil rights action with multiple claims, only some of which are groundless, a defendant is entitled only to those fees attributable exclusively to defending against plaintiff’s frivolous claims. If the work is performed in whole or in part in connection with defending against any of plaintiff’s claims for which fees may not be awarded, such work may not be included in calculating a fee award. Accordingly, the fees properly attributable to this claim, if any, would be quite minimal.
The court's rationale is that the law is "solicitous" of plaintiffs' complaints in civil rights cases.  The court more accurately is "solicitous" of bad faith lawsuits with no chance of succeeding.  It is not mutually exclusive to allow plaintiffs with bona fide claims to have a day in court, while still enforcing some minimal standards.  If a case is frivolous, that means it never should have been brought. It is only fair to defray some of the employers' costs in defending against a lawsuit that never should have been filed in the first place.

Oh, I'm not the only one who smacked his forehead after reading the opinion in this case. There was a dissent that pretty much calls bull on the majority.  Perhaps the full en banc court will take up this issue.

The opinion is Harris v. Maricopa County Superior Court and the opinion is here.