Plaintiff Awarded Attorney’s Fees
A federal district court in Pennsylvania held that a plaintiff who succeeded on one of multiple claims was a “prevailing party” and entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and costs even though the relief awarded did not directly remedy the harm. Hare v. Potter, No. 02-CV-7373 (E.D. Pa. February 12, 2008).
The plaintiff was an outstanding U.S. Postal Service postmaster who, after filing complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation, no longer received assistance in developing her career and instead received less-than-desirable performance ratings. She eventually resigned due to the hostile work environment. In her discrimination complaint, the plaintiff originally alleged nine claims of discrimination and reprisal. A jury returned a verdict finding the agency was liable on one of the plaintiff’s claims – retaliation resulting in a hostile work environment. She did not receive compensatory damages or back pay, but rather equitable relief requiring the Postal Service to perform supplemental training and post notice of the verdict.
The general rule in the American justice system is that the parties bear their own attorney’s fees and costs. However, Congress has implemented fee-shifting statutes authorizing an exception to this general rule, notably in Title VII cases under the Civil Rights Act. Citing the Supreme Court, Hare noted the purpose for such a fee-shifting statute: “A Title VII plaintiff is the chosen instrument of Congress to vindicate a policy that Congress considered the highest priority.” (Internal quotations omitted).
In order to be entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and costs in a Title VII case, it is required that a plaintiff be a “prevailing party.” For the status of “prevailing party” to be conferred, the plaintiff must achieve some benefit sought in bringing the suit secured by an enforceable judgment. Moreover, attorney’s fees and costs will not be awarded where such an award would be unjust for any reason, such as the insignificant success of the prevailing party.
In Hare, the court found that the plaintiff was a prevailing party because the agency was ordered to perform supplemental training and post a notice of the verdict. Arguably, this grant of equitable relief would not remedy the one successful claim since she no longer worked for the agency. Yet, the court concluded that despite being a former employee, the equitable relief benefited the plaintiff by “affirming her protected activities and vindicating her efforts to enforce her civil rights,” and because the plaintiff was required to be involved in the implementation of the training program and could enforce the judgment. Moreover, the court highlighted the importance of the equitable relief as one requiring taking affirmative steps as opposed to simply refraining from certain activity.
Also, the court found that the grant of equitable relief causing the agency to take affirmative steps justified an award of attorney’s fees and costs. This conclusion was supporting by the findings that the plaintiff received relief on her successful claim, the issue of Title VII retaliatory hostile work environment claim was important, and the success of the case achieved the important public purpose of enforcing Title VII and providing deterrence from future retaliation.
Nowadays, litigation is expensive regardless whether that cost is borne by the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s representative. If the district court’s ruling is adopted, then would-be plaintiffs will be in a better position to vindicate the rights of Title VII (and likely other federal fee-shifting statutes) and alter the conduct of misbehaving employers with the possibility that the litigation costs associated with bringing successful claims could be recovered.