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Guy Gets $550 for Sexual Harassment. Lawyers Get $350k.

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 20, 2013 9:55 AM

Who says law is no longer lucrative?

A guy gets sexually harassed by his female boss. She sends him vulgar texts, including one about banana "Luv cake" which involved milk jugs and is far too gloriously offensive to repeat here. (See the unpublished appellate court opinion for all of the naughty texts.) She also comes on to him, and other male coworkers at work.

But bottom line, the jury (a) didn't think that the company knew about the harassment and (b) didn't think his emotional distress lasted a full four years, as he claimed. They awarded $550. His attorneys, meanwhile, are set to walk away with nearly $350,000 in legal fees, unless the California Supreme Court intervenes.

California Fair Employment and Housing Act's Attorney Fee-Shifting

California's FEHA allows successful plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees. But another statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1033, gives the judge discretion to limit fees if the judgment is an amount that could have been obtained in a limited civil case (limited to $25,000).

Then again, FEHA seems to be the exception to the rule. In Chavez v. City of Los Angeles, the court made it clear that the policy favoring full recovery of FEHA fees trumps CCP 1033, at least most of the time:

"If, based on the available information, the plaintiff's attorney might reasonably have expected to be able to present substantial evidence supporting a FEHA damages award in an amount exceeding the damages limit (now $25,000) for a limited civil case, or if the plaintiff's attorney might reasonably have concluded that the action could not be fairly and effectively litigated as a limited civil case, the trial court should not deny attorney fees merely because, for example, the trier of fact ultimately rejected the testimony of the plaintiff's witnesses or failed to draw inferences that were reasonably supported, although not compelled, by the plaintiff's evidence. But if, to the contrary, the trial court is firmly persuaded that the plaintiff's attorney had no reasonable basis to anticipate a FEHA damages award in excess of the amount recoverable in a limited civil case, and also that the action could have been fairly and effectively litigated as a limited civil case, the trial court may deny, in whole or in part, the plaintiff's claim for attorney fees and other litigation costs."

That's a beefy and exhaustive explanation, but the bottom line is, if the plaintiff's attorney can justify bringing the case as an unlimited case, the full amount of the fees will be awarded, even when it does result in a $350k fee award on a $550 judgment.

Supreme Court May Review

Obviously, such a result seems ridiculous. The plaintiff's former employer, Contemporary Services Corporation, asked the court to review the case, noting the massive disparity between the results obtained by plaintiff's counsel, and the payment received, reports Legal Newsline.

CSC notes that the fees were roughly 634 times the judgment, and that the attorneys, even with their self-imposed 25 percent reduction (to account for any possible billing errors and the like), made $369.82 per hour. They are seeking some limitation, perhaps based on the ratio of the client's success (1 percent of what he requested).

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