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Chavez v. City of Los Angeles

January 14, 2010

ROBERT CHAVEZ, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
CITY OF LOS ANGELES ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



Ct.App. 2/8 B192375 Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC324514. Judge: Rolf M. Treu.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kennard, J.

"Except as otherwise expressly provided by statute, a prevailing party is entitled as a matter of right to recover costs in any action or proceeding." (Code Civ. Proc., § 1032, subd. (b).) The litigation costs that the prevailing party may recover include attorney fees when recovery of such fees is authorized by statute. (Id., § 1033.5, subd. (a)(10)(B).) But when "the prevailing party recovers a judgment that could have been rendered in a limited civil case,"*fn1 and the action was not brought as a limited civil case, Code of Civil Procedure section 1033's subdivision (a) (hereafter section 1033(a)) states that "[c]osts or any portion of claimed costs shall be as determined by the court in its discretion . . . ."

In any action brought under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) (Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.), Government Code section 12965's subdivision (b) grants the trial court discretion to award attorney fees to a prevailing party. This statute has been interpreted to mean that in a FEHA action a trial court should ordinarily award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff unless special circumstances would render a fee award unjust. (Young v. Exxon Mobil Corp. (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1467, 1474; Steele v. Jensen Instrument Co. (1997) 59 Cal.App.4th 326, 331.) If, as here, a party brings an action under the FEHA that is not brought as a limited civil case and recovers an amount that could have been awarded in a limited civil case, does the trial court have discretion under section 1033(a) to deny that party's motion for attorney fees?

Here, the plaintiff brought an action under the FEHA and recovered damages of $11,500, which is less than half of the $25,000 jurisdictional limit for a limited civil case (see Code Civ. Proc., § 86). Plaintiff did not bring the action as a limited civil case, and the trial court, relying on section 1033(a), denied plaintiff's motion seeking an attorney fee award of $870,935.50. On plaintiff's appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that "section 1033 does not apply in actions brought under FEHA."

We have determined that the Court of Appeal erred in so concluding and that its judgment should therefore be reversed. As we explain, section 1033(a), interpreted according to its plain meaning, gives a trial court discretion to deny attorney fees to a plaintiff who prevails on a FEHA claim but recovers an amount that could have been recovered in a limited civil case. In exercising that discretion, however, the trial court must give due consideration to the policies and objectives of the FEHA in general and of its attorney fee provision in particular. Here, we further conclude that, in light of plaintiff's minimal success and grossly inflated attorney fee request, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying attorney fees.

I.

The appellate record in this case does not include reporters' transcripts of trial proceedings. Instead, it includes documents filed in the action and a reporter's transcript of the hearing on plaintiff's motion for attorney fees. In their briefs filed in the Court of Appeal and in this court, neither party has provided a factual narrative of the dispute underlying the lawsuit, nor did the Court of Appeal's opinion contain such a narrative. To provide a more complete perspective on the issue presented here, the following facts have been gleaned from the appellate record.

In November 1989, defendant City of Los Angeles (City) hired plaintiff Robert Chavez as a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (Department). In 1996, while assigned to the Department's Southwest Division, plaintiff was accused of stealing payroll checks. After a lengthy investigation, the Department determined that plaintiff was not the officer who had stolen the checks.

In February 1997, plaintiff was transferred to the Department's Hollenbeck Division. There, plaintiff told his captain that he was under surveillance by the Department's Internal Affairs Group. Concerned that plaintiff appeared to have paranoid beliefs, the captain ordered him to be seen by the Department's Behavioral Science Services unit. Between April 1997 and September 1998, plaintiff attended 10 sessions with Behavioral Science Services. Meanwhile, in September 1997, plaintiff was transferred to the Department's 77th Street Division.

In April 1998, plaintiff filed a lawsuit (Super. Ct. L.A. County, No. BC189182) against the City and one Sergeant Berglund, alleging claims for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and civil rights violations, all resulting from the 1996 stolen checks incident. From December 1998 to May 1999, plaintiff made numerous complaints to the Department alleging that he was being harassed in retaliation for having filed that lawsuit. In particular, plaintiff complained that Department helicopters were hovering above his house, which is located in Alhambra, a city outside the Department's jurisdiction.

On April 14, 1999, in response to a silent alarm, plaintiff and other officers went to a laundromat where they investigated alleged robberies. Two days later, the laundromat's owner lodged a personnel complaint against those officers.*fn2 As a result, the Department began an investigation of plaintiff's conduct at the laundromat. On May 27, 1999, plaintiff left work on stress leave, under the care of a psychologist, and did not return to work until March 10, 2000. Plaintiff has alleged that on several occasions during this stress leave, Department helicopters again hovered over his Alhambra residence.

On December 21, 1999, the superior court dismissed plaintiff's lawsuit against the City and Sergeant Berglund arising from the false accusation that plaintiff had stolen payroll checks. On January 10, 2000, plaintiff and his wife presented to the City a claim for damages allegedly resulting from harassment and/or surveillance by Department helicopters at their Alhambra home. The Department's Air Support Division investigated these allegations and determined they were unfounded.*fn3 On March 1, 2000, the City denied the claim for damages.

On March 10, 2000, when plaintiff returned to work at the Department's 77th Street Division, he was served with a written notice that the Department intended to suspend him for five days for neglect of duty during the laundromat incident in April 1999.*fn4 Plaintiff resumed patrol duties for three days, but his supervisors then assigned him to various administrative tasks until he could be seen and cleared by a staff psychologist of the Department's Behavioral Science Services.

On March 24, 2000, plaintiff submitted to California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing an administrative complaint under the FEHA alleging unlawful employment discrimination (on the basis of race, color, marital status, medical condition, national origin/ancestry, and disability), harassment, and retaliation. In the administrative complaint, as "act or acts of harm," plaintiff mentioned his five-day suspension, a "pattern of incidents" at work producing a hostile environment, an internal affairs investigation, and a "change of medical leave to personal leave." The Department of Fair Employment and Housing gave plaintiff a right to sue notice. (See Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).)

On March 26, 2000, plaintiff requested a transfer from the Department's 77th Street Division. On April 26, 2000, Commander Harlan Ward, one of plaintiff's supervisors, approved the transfer request.

In May 2000, plaintiff and his wife filed a lawsuit (Super. Ct. L.A. County, No. BC229922) against the City and three of plaintiff's supervisors at the 77th Street Division - Commander Ward and Lieutenants Krejci and Von Lutzow - alleging employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in violation of the FEHA (as to plaintiff); trespass (as to both plaintiff and his wife); and loss of consortium (as to plaintiff's wife). Plaintiff later amended the complaint in that action to add causes of action for nuisance and inverse condemnation. Two weeks after plaintiff and his wife filed the original complaint in that action, Commander Ward rescinded the order granting plaintiff's request to transfer to another division.

In June 2000, plaintiff submitted another FEHA administrative complaint, this time alleging that the transfer order was rescinded in retaliation for his May 2000 filing of the lawsuit asserting causes of action under the FEHA against the City and the three individual defendants. At plaintiff's request, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing immediately gave him a right to sue notice.

In August 2000, plaintiff and his wife filed a complaint in federal district court against the City, the Department, and five fictitiously named defendants, asserting a claim for violation of civil rights under sections 1983 and 1988 of title 42 of the United States Code.

In October 2000, plaintiff was transferred from the Department's 77th Street Division to its Southwest Division, ...


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