Rare But it Happens: Plaintiff Ordered to Pay Defendant’s Attorney’s Fees in “Frivolous” Case

The American civil legal system normally doesn’t allow for a successful party to recoup its legal costs, unless that’s spelled out by statute. Though in other countries a plaintiff brining a lawsuit runs the risk of paying the defendant’s lawyers’ bills, normally unless a claim is particularly groundless and “frivolous” the plaintiff need only cover his or her own costs. A recent Los Angeles County Court case is an exception to that rule, according to the Daily Journal.
Nancy Arambula Corona, a former on-site building manager, sued her ex-employer, Weiss Family Properties, LLC, (which owns apartment buildings in Los Angeles County) under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and its Labor Code. According to the filings in the case,

• Corona suffered an injury on the job.
• Defendant states it reasonably accommodated her by having another employee clean her building.
• Weiss eventually fired Corona because she couldn’t perform her job and plaintiff’s physician stated her condition wouldn’t improve.
• Corona also claimed she was owed unpaid overtime pay while Weiss claimed they paid her for the hours she submitted on her time sheets.

Earlier this month a judge found Cornona’s claims were “frivolous and/or brought in bad faith.” Her lawsuit has a history of problems. The case was filed but later the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed it and tried to revive it. The judge allowed her attorney to remove himself from the case earlier this month.

Corona was originally ordered to pay Weiss $67,307 is attorneys’ fees and costs. In response the plaintiff stated requiring her to do so would “financially ruin” her and the judge cut the amount by a third. Corona is left with an order she pay $47,149.90. Defendant’s attorney told the Daily Journal his client expects difficulty collecting the money, but even if they can’t, the order sends a message to other potential plaintiffs that a frivolous lawsuit could carry a heavy cost.
California’s Code of Civil Procedure section 1032, subdivision (b) guarantees prevailing parties in civil litigation awards of the costs expended in the litigation: “Except as otherwise expressly provided by statute, a prevailing party is entitled as a matter of right to recover costs in any action or proceeding.”

In a 2015 case, Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District, the California Supreme Court stated that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) was an exception to that general rule, giving judges in these cases discretion in awarding these costs. A successful defendant can’t automatically be awarded these costs simply because the case was dismissed.

The Court stated in an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision it held that awarding attorney’s fees to defendants in federal civil rights cases could greatly increase the risks of filing one, overly discouraging plaintiffs, so to get such fees a defendant would have to show the claim was “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.”
The Court in Williams stated that in FEHA cases such as Corona’s for a defendant to be awarded attorneys’ fees, “A prevailing defendant, however, should not be awarded fees and costs unless the court finds the action was objectively without foundation when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.”

If you’ve been named as a defendant in a civil case there is a chance the plaintiff may end up paying your legal bills, but it’s not something you can count on, unless the claim practically has no basis in fact and has been filed just to harass you.

If you or your company may be involved in litigation and you have questions or concerns about who may be responsible to pay for what, contact our office so we can talk about the situation and what we can do to help.