When can you get attorney's fees in a California employment case?

Discrimination or Harassment Cases Under FEHAIn a civil action brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the court "in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party . . . reasonable attorney's fees and costs, including expert witness fees."[1]Despite the "discretionary language [of the FEHA statute], however, the statute applies only if the plaintiff's lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious."[2] "Meritless" means "groundless or without foundation, rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case."[3] Vexatious "'in no way implies that the plaintiff's subjective bad faith is a necessary prerequisite to a fee award against him.'"[4] The court will also consider a plaintiff's ability to pay before awarding attorney's fees in a FEHA action in favor of the defendant.[5]This limitation applies to both attorney's fees and ordinary costs in FEHA actions.[6] It is therefore an exception to Code of Civil Procedure 1032(b), which typically entitles a prevailing party to costs.[7]There is no such limitation on a prevailing plaintiff/employee's entitlement to attorney's fees.[8]Minimum Wage/Overtime ClaimsPlaintiffs who recover damages for minimum wage or overtime claims are statutorily entitled to recover their attorney's fees.[9] In any other claim for wages and benefits other than minimum wages and overtime, a prevailing employee is entitled to attorney's fees and costs.[10] However, where the prevailing party is an employer, it may only receive attorney's fees and costs "if the court finds that the employee brought the court action in bad faith."[11]Expense Reimbursement ClaimsUnder Labor Code 2802, employers must reimburse employees for "all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence" of the employee's job. Employees are entitled to attorney's fees incurred in enforcing their right to the expense reimbursements.[12]Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) ClaimsAn employee who prevails on a Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) claim is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and costs.[13] As an additional ground, California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 allows a court to award attorney's fees to a "successful party . . . in any action which has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest."[14]Appeals from Labor Commissioner ClaimsWhere a party appeals a Labor Commissioner ruling, courts must award costs and attorney's fees to the prevailing party.[15] An employee is a "prevailing party" if he or she is awarded more than zero dollars on appeal.[16][1] Cal. Gov. Code § 12965 (b).[2]Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal. App 4th 67, 70 (2014), citingMangano v. Verity, Inc., 167 Cal.App.4th 944, 948–949 (2008).[3]Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal. App 4th 67, 70 (2014), citingMangano v. Verity, Inc., 167 Cal.App.4th 944, 948–949 (2008).[4]Cummings v. Benco Building Services, 11 Cal. App. 4th 1383, 1387 (1992)(FEHA case finding attorney's fees were not warranted because it was "a routine case in which the plaintiff merely failed to achieve success on her claim"), citing Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978) ("In sum, a district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII case upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith.").[5]Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal. App 4th 67, 70 (2014), citingVillanueva v. City of Colton, 160 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1203 (2008). In Robert, the court found that the plaintiff "never had or even claimed to have any evidence that race discrimination played a role in his termination other than his own opinion," so "[t]he trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that [the plaintiff's] action was both meritless and vexatious." Id. at 73.[6]Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire Dist., 61 Cal. 4th 97, 115 (2015) ("For these reasons, we conclude the Christiansburg standard applies to discretionary awards of both attorney fees and costs to prevailing FEHA parties under Government Code section 12965(b). To reiterate, under that standard a prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily receive his or her costs and attorney fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust. . . . 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.").[7] Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire Dist., 61 Cal. 4th 97, 104-105 (2015).[8]Rosenman v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil &' Shapiro, 91 Cal. App. 4th 859, 865 (2001) ("a prevailing plaintiff in an antidiscrimination case 'should ordinarily recover an attorney' fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust"), citing ChristianburgGarment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978).[9] Cal. Lab. Code § 1194.[10] Cal. Lab. Code § 218.5 (applies to claims for "nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions," but not overtime and minimum wage claims). Under § 218.5(a), either party must request attorney's fees and costs at the initiation of the action.[11] Cal. Lab. Code § 218.5 (a).[12] Cal. Lab. Code § 2802.[13] Cal. Lab. Code § 2699 (g).[14] Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1021.5 (applies where "(a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity, are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.").[15] Cal. Lab. Code § 98.2 (c).[16] Cal. Lab. Code § 98.2 (c).

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