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Big Costs on Small Judgments

Can a company defeat several of an employee's claims and still be on the hook for all of his attorney's fees if the employee wins on just one substantial claim? Yes. "The law does not mandate . . . that attorney fees bear a percentage relationship to the ultimate recovery of damages in civil rights cases." Harman v. City and County of San Francisco (2007) 158 Cal.App.4th 407. In Harman, a jury found in favor of the employee on a discrimination claim, and even though the court had dismissed most of the employee's claims, the jury award of $30,300 in damages justified an award of attorney's fees, and the trial court found $1.1 million to be the reasonable amount of fee incurred pursuing the case. Aside from $144,170 spent on a prior appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the award.

In conclusion, we borrow from Justice Powell's observations in his concurring opinion in Riverside: “On its face, the fee award seems unreasonable. But [we] find no basis for this Court to reject the findings made and approved by the [court] below.” (Riverside v. Rivera, supra, 477 U.S. 561, 581 (conc. opn. of Powell, J.).) Although we may have exercised our discretion differently, we “cannot conclude that the detailed findings made by the [trial court] … were clearly erroneous, or that the [trial court] abused its discretion in making this fee award.”

We have a case headed in this direction, not out of a lack of trying to settle it early.



Before anyone gets too excited, do not forget about Harrington v. Payroll Entertainment Serv., Inc., 160 Cal.App.4th 589 (2008), where the DCA limited plaintiff attorney fee to $500. Plaintiff attorney was seeking $46,000 in fees on a case that settled for $10,500.

Bottom Line: Small cases usually result in small fees.

michael walsh

No, the real bottom line: Bad cases usually result in small fees. Good, but small, cases often result in fees commensurate to the work required. We've been awarded $80,000 in fees on an $18,000 case. If the defense forces you to spend the money to get your client's richly deserved small judgment, it's on their dime.

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