Issue By: Catherine E. Golden

Bustos v. Global P.E.T., Inc., et al.,

Fourth Appellate Court of Appeal, No. E065869 (Jan. 16, 2018)

The California Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees for an employee despite the jury finding that his physical condition was “a substantial motivating reason” for his termination.

William Bustos was hired by Global P.E.T. (“Global”) in 2010. He first worked as a sheet line operator and then as a shift supervisor. In 2013 a number of employees including plaintiff were laid off due to an economic downturn at Global. However, Mr. Busto was laid off just one day before he was scheduled to have carpel tunnel surgery. The following year, he filed suit in California state court alleging his disabilities were a substantial motivating reason for his termination. He brought seven causes of action, including discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act against Global.

At trial, plaintiff testified that he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand and scheduled for surgery the day after his discriminatory termination. Global contended that plaintiff was not discriminated against but let go along with a number of other employees as part of economic layoffs. In addition Global presented evidence that plaintiff had failed one or more drug tests.

The jury returned a defense verdict. However, on the special verdict form regarding plaintiff’s disability discrimination/wrongful termination claim, the jury found that plaintiff’s physical condition was a substantial motivation in Global’s decision to discharge plaintiff. At the same time the jury also found that Global’s conduct was not a substantial factor in causing harm to plaintiff.

Plaintiff then requested an award of attorneys’ fees in the sum of $454,857 citing to the California Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203. In that case, the court held that an employee who proved that discrimination was “a substantial motivating factor” for his or her termination could still be entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. The trial court denied plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees since the jury also found that Global’s conduct was not a substantial factor in causing harm and plaintiff was not the prevailing party. Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court finding that “it is not beyond reason to conclude that a plaintiff who obtains no relief at trial – either monetary or equitable – has not ‘realized his litigation objectives,’ regardless of whether one or more preliminary questions on a special verdict form were answered in his favor.” The Court looked at whether plaintiff had realized his litigation objectives and analyzed whether Global was required to pay his attorneys’ fees given the jury’s findings. The Court focused 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” ( Harris at 235) finding that an award for attorneys’ fees was discretionary. Further, since plaintiff obtained no equitable or monetary relief at trial it was reasonable to conclude that he had “not realized his litigation objectives” yet Global had. Thus, it was not unreasonable for the trial court to exercise its discretion and not award attorney fees.

COMMENT

This case should be considered a win for employers. But employers should always evaluate potential attorney’s fees issues as early as possible when an employee files suit.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Busto v. Global

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