Supreme Court Unanimously Limits Employers' Right to Attorneys' Fees in Discrimination Cases

In federal cases alleging discrimination, harassment, retaliation and violations of civil rights, when may a defendant employer recover attorneys' fees?  It is long settled that defendants may recover only when the plaintiff's claims are "frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation."  What about when just some of the claims are frivolous?  The Supreme Court answered that question, unanimously, with Justice Kagan writing the opinion:

Section 1988 allows a defendant to recover reasonable attorney’s fees incurred because of, but only because of, a frivolous claim. Or what is the same thing stated as a but-for test: Section 1988 permits the defendant to receive only the portion of his fees that he would not have paid but for the frivolous claim.
The Court then went on to hold that if the defendant spends fees on issues that deal with both frivolous and nonfrivolous claims simultaneously, the defendant may not recover fees:
But if the defendant would have incurred those fees anyway, to defend against non-frivolous claims, then a court has no basis for transferring the expense to the plaintiff. Suppose, for example, that a defendant’s attorney conducts a deposition on matters relevant to both a frivolous and a non-frivolous claim—and more, that the lawyer would have taken and committed the same time to this deposition even if the case had involved only the non-frivolous allegation. In that circumstance, the work does not implicate Congress’s reason for allowing defendants to collect fees. The defendant would have incurred the expense in any event; he has suffered no incremental harm from the frivolous claim. In short, the defendant has never shouldered the burden that Congress, in enacting §1988, wanted to relieve. The basic American Rule thus continues to operate.

Thus, the Supreme Court unanimously made sure that defendants will have a tough time recovering fees in cases including both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, just like the Ninth Circuit decided in Harris v. Maricopa County, which I discussed  here. Yes, I thought the Court of Appeals was out to lunch. I was wr-wr-wr... incorrect.  No wonder I don't have a vote on either court.  My opinion, though, remains the same. The Supreme Court joins the Ninth Circuit in making it very difficult for defendants to recover attorneys' fees in frivolous discrimination cases, unless the case is entirely frivolous. There is little incentive for the plaintiff to dismiss the frivolous component.

The Supreme Court decision is Fox v. Vice and the opinion is here.