On May 4, 2015, the California Supreme Court held that a prevailing defendant in an action brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is not entitled to an award of its costs as a matter of right. Rather, an unsuccessful plaintiff will not be ordered to pay defendant’s costs unless the plaintiff brought or continued litigating the suit “without an objective basis for believing it had merit.” Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire Dist., 61 Cal.4th 97 (2015) (Williams).
Williams sued his employer for disability discrimination under FEHA. On motion for summary judgment, the trial court ruled for the defendant and awarded costs in an amount to be determined. Williams argued that the standard applied in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, 434 U.S. 412 (1978) (Christiansburg) should be applied to the court’s award of costs to the defendant. In Christiansburg, the United States Supreme Court held that a prevailing plaintiff in a discrimination action brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should ordinarily be awarded his/her attorneys’ fees, but a prevailing defendant will only receive its attorneys’ fees if “the court finds the action was objectively without foundation when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Williams, 61 Cal.4th at 115. Williams argued that the Christianburg standard should be applied to the court’s award of costs in his FEHA action and the defendant should only be awarded its costs if the court found that Williams’ action was “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless….” Id. at 422. The trial court rejected Williams’ argument and awarded the defendant approximately $5,400 in costs. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling, but the California Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court reached two important conclusions. First, it held that “Government Code section 12965(b) is an express exception to Code of Civil Procedure section 1032(b)….” Williams, 61 Cal.4th at 105. Code of Civil Procedure section 1032(b) generally guarantees prevailing parties in civil cases their costs expended in the litigation. However, the Supreme Court concluded that Government Code section 12965(b), which makes an award of such costs discretionary, not Code of Civil Procedure section 1032(b), governs cost awards in FEHA cases. Second, the court held that a trial court’s discretion in awarding attorneys’ fees and costs under Government Code section 12965(b) is subject to the standard set forth inChristiansburg. Thus, even though the defendant had prevailed in the underlying action, the Supreme Court held that the defendant is only entitled to receive its costs if “the court finds the action was objectively without foundation when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Williams, 61 Cal.4th at 115.
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