William Bustos brought several disability discrimination-related claims against his employer Global P.E.T., Inc. Mr. Bustos was fired just a day before he was scheduled to have carpal tunnel surgery. The case went to trial and resulted in a defense verdict. Despite the defense verdict, the jury found that Mr. Bustos’s disability was a substantial motivating reason for Global P.E.T., Inc.’s decision to terminate him. However, the jury also found that Global P.E.T., Inc.’s conduct was not a substantial factor in causing harm to Mr. Bustos. Bustos v. Global P.E.T., Inc., et al., Fourth Appellate Court of Appeal, No. E065869 (published Jan. 16, 2018).
Mr. Bustos requested attorneys’ fees, citing to the holding in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203 (Harris) 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[.]” Mr. Bustos reasoned that such an award was arguably feasible even if the discrimination did not “result in compensable injury.”
The trial court denied Mr. Bustos’s motion for attorneys’ fees and the appellate court affirmed. The Fourth Appellate District looked at whether Mr. Bustos had realized his litigation objectives. It also analyzed whether Global P.E.T., Inc. was required to pay his attorneys’ fees given the jury’s findings. In an attempt to answer these queries, the appellate court re-visited the language in Harris, focusing on whether a plaintiff who was subjected “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.” Id. at 235. The court honed in on the phrase “may be eligible,” and found that an award for attorneys’ fees is discretionary. Because Mr. Bustos obtained no equitable or monetary relief at trial, the appellate court also found that it was reasonable to conclude that he had “not realized his litigation objectives.” Global, P.E.T., Inc., by contrast had. Thus, it was not unreasonable for the trial court to exercise its discretion and deny Mr. Bustos’s motion for attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party.
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