Trial Court Properly Denied Attorneys’ Fees To Plaintiff Who Proved His Termination Was Substantially Motivated By His Disabilities, But Was Not The Prevailing Party At Trial

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In Bustos v. Global P.E.T., Inc., (E065869, Cal. Ct. App. January 16, 2018), Plaintiff William Bustos and a number of his co-workers were terminated by Global in an economic layoff.  Bustos sued Global alleging his disabilities were a substantial motivating reason for his termination.

At trial, the jury awarded Bustos nothing, although the jury answered “Yes” to the special verdict form question: “Was [Bustos’ disabilities] a substantial motivating reasons for [Global’s] decision to discharge [Bustos]?”  The jury also answered “No” to the question of whether Global’s “conduct” was a “substantial factor in causing harm to [Bustos]”.

Based on the jury’s finding that Bustos’ disabilities were a substantial motivating reason for his termination, Bustos’ attorneys requested an award of about $454,000 in fees under the Fair Employment Housing Act, Government Code Section 12965. They cited Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, 235, for the proposition that “a plaintiff subject to an adverse employment decision in which discrimination was a substantial motivating factor may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs expended for the purpose of redressing, preventing, or deterring that discrimination,” even if that plaintiff did not sustain a compensable injury.

The trial court denied that request, finding that Bustos was not a “prevailing party” under Section 12965 because he failed to recover any economic or equitable relief. (Bustos, supra, *4.)  After reviewing the record and Harris, the Court of Appeal affirmed:  “It is not beyond reason to conclude that a plaintiff who obtains no relief at trial – either monetary or equitable – has not ‘realized [his] litigation objectives,’ regardless of whether one or more preliminary questions on a special verdict form were answered in his favor.”  (Id. at *7, citing Castro v. Superior Court (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 1010, 1023.)

The Bustos decision should discourage claims for attorney’s fees based only on favorable special verdict form questions where a plaintiff has no practical prevailing party status.  This decision, however, may also encourage the pursuit of more equitable claims – injunctive and declaratory relief – in which a plaintiff has another means of realizing prevailing party status.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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