Suppose a national origin discrimination case goes to a jury trial (I know we’re not having jury trials during this pandemic, but humor me).
The jury comes back with a verdict finding for the Plaintiff-employee. But it awards the Plaintiff just one dollar. Is this a victory?
Before you answer, you should know this happens more than you think. Sometimes a jury may say that an employee was definitely wronged but really didn’t suffer any damages as a result.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Can the attorney be awarded attorneys’ fees for this so-called victory?
Yes, under state law, says a (somewhat) recent Superior Court case. And in doing so, the court awarded approximately $95,000 in such fees.
The case relies on Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 46-104. As I noted back in 2011, that statute was amended to include the following sentence: “The amount of attorneys fees allowed shall not be contingent upon the amount of damages requested by or awarded to the complainant.”
Despite the fact that the jury verdict was “de minimus”, the court said it was bound by the plain language of the statute to award attorneys fees.
The court also rejected an argument that there was not a strong legal issue to base the jury’s verdict on. The court relied on prior precedent to find that even where a plaintiff’s recovery is small, deterring unlawful acts is a public policy goal that supports the award of substantial attorney fees.
The court also reviewed the fee request itself and found it to be reasonable. $325 per hour was sought and even the Defendant agreed that such a rate was “reasonable”.
The court also said that because the defendant chose to litigate the matter “fully”, it cannot now complain about the fees racked up by the Plaintiff.
The case serves as an important reminder to employers that even “small victories” can be costly in the long run. Discrimination cases in particular pose a substantial risk to an employer where the payment of attorneys fees comes in to play.
It’s yet another reason why so many of these cases settle.