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Holland v. Wachovia Securities

May 15, 2009

WILLIAM R. HOLLAND AND MICHAEL W. HOLLAND, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WACHOVIA SECURITIES, LLC, EUGENE P. INGARGIOLA, AN INDIVIDUAL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hayes, Judge

ORDER

The matters before the Court are the petition to vacate arbitration award (Doc. 3) and the ex parte application for an order referring the petition to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of California (Doc. 26) filed by Petitioner William Holland.

BACKGROUND

1. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Arbitration

In October 2005, Petitioner William Holland initiated a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration action against his former employer, Wachovia Securities, and his former Supervisor, Eugene Ingargiola.*fn1 (W. Holland Decl. Ex. A at 1.) Petitioner alleged claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, discrimination based on age, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, violations of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), civil conspiracy, and slander. (Id. at 3.) Petitioner requested compensatory damages in excess of $1,000,000.00, unspecified punitive damages, treble damages, and costs, including attorney's fees. (Id. at 4.) In September 2007, Petitioner voluntarily dismissed his claims for RICO violations and slander. (Id. at 5.)

On November 20, 2007, after a hearing on Petitioner's claims, Respondents filed a motion for summary judgment. (Id. at 5.) The motion was fully briefed, and the Panel heard oral argument on February 6, 2008. (Id.) On February 12, 2008, the FINRA Panel granted Respondents' motion and dismissed Petitioner's claims in their entirety with prejudice. (Id. at 6.)

On May 22, 2008, Respondents filed a motion for attorneys' fees and costs with the FINRA Panel pursuant to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). (W. Holland Decl. Ex. K.) Respondents asserted that "the Fair Employment and Housing Act authorizes attorney fees awards to prevailing defendants." (Id. at 13.) Respondents explained the standard for awarding attorneys' fees as follows:

The FEHA provides that "the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party reasonable fees and costs." Cal. Govt. Code § 12965(b); see also, Steele v. Jensen Instrument Co., 59 Cal. App. 4th 326, 331 (1997). Federal interpretations of employment discrimination statutes with fee shifting provisions, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. section 1988, are instructive to courts interpreting fee provisions of the FEHA. See e.g. Flannery v. California Highway Patrol, 61 Cal. App. 4th 629, 643 (1998); Stephens v. Coldwell Banker Commercial Group, Inc. 199 Cal. App. 3d 1394, 1405 (1988).

Under Title VII and the FEHA, a successful defendant is entitled to attorney's fees "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." Christainberg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 420-22 (1978). The Christainberg standard for awarding fees to defendants applies to FEHA discrimination cases. Bond v. Pulsar Video Prods., 50 Cal. App. 4th 918, 921-22 (1996). A trial court's award of attorney fees and costs under Government Code section 12965 is subject to an abuse of discretion standard. Bond, 50 Cal. App. 4th at 921.

(W. Holland Decl. Ex. K at 13.) Respondents asserted that they were entitled to an award of attorneys' fees under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act because "William Holland's cause of action for age discrimination was frivolous . . . ." (Id. at 15.)

On May 30, 2008, Petitioner filed an opposition to Respondents' motion for attorneys' fees and costs. (W. Holland Decl. Ex. L.) Petitioner explained the standard for awarding attorneys' fees as follows:

While it is true that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act gives the Panel discretion to award attorneys' fees, Respondents are entitled to attorney fees under FEHA only in the rare case where Claimants' actions are found to be unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. Rosenman v. Christensen, 91 Cal. App. 4th 859, 864 (2001); Cummings v. Benco Bldg. Servs., 11 Cal. App. 4th 1383, 1387 (1992) (citing Christianberg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978)). This requirement is commonly known as the "Christianberg standard." Only a small number of cases, where plaintiff's actions were so egregious, have survived the Christianberg standard. In one such case, the plaintiff's action was found to be frivolous because the plaintiff signed "a release which explicitly release all such causes of action." Linsley v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 75 Cal. App. 4th 762, 771 (1999). (W. Holland Decl. Ex. L at 6) (emphasis in original). Petitioner asserted that Respondents were not entitled to an award of attorneys' fees under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act because "Bill's claim of age discrimination is not like one of those 'rare' egregious cases that would support an award of attorneys' fees under the Christianberg standard." (Id. at 7.) Petitioner requested that "the Panel issue a detailed statement of judgment showing the prevailing claim and the respective amount of attorneys' fees" in the event they were awarded to Respondents. (Id. at 14.)

On September 4, 2008, the Panel issued a written final arbitration award, which stated that "the Panel has determined that William Holland's claim for age discrimination was frivolous, and therefore it has made an award of attorneys' fees as against William Holland, as allowed under Cal. Govt. Code Section 12965(b) and the various authorities cited by Respondents in their May 22, 2008 Brief." (W. Holland Decl. Ex. A at 10.) The Panel stated that the $372,094.00 award "represents 80% of the total attorneys' fees ...


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