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Gomez v. 7253 Variel Ave

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 17, 2017

PATRICIA GOMEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
7253 VARIEL AVE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES [DKT. 112]

          DEAN D. PREGERSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the court is Defendants 7253 Variel Ave, LLC and Leeds Property Management, Inc. (collectively “Defendants”) Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Expert Witness Fees. After considering the parties' submissions, the court DENIES the Motion and adopts the following Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The court assumes the parties' familiarity with the facts of this case, which have been set forth more fully in the court's summary judgment Order. (Dkt. 105.) In brief, Plaintiffs Robin Davis, Carole Davis, London Rowlands (collectively, the “Davis Plaintiffs”) and Patricia Gomez brought this action on the basis of their treatment as tenants in Defendants' properties. (See generally Compl.) Specifically, the Complaint alleges the following causes of action: (1) discrimination on the basis of race, disability, and association in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (id. at ¶¶ 83-89); (2) housing discrimination in violation of Cal. Gov't Code § 12955 (id. at ¶¶ 90-96); (3) discrimination on the basis of race and color as to the Davis Plaintiffs and on the basis of association with the Davis Plaintiffs as to Gomez in violation of the California Unruh Civil Rights Act (id. at ¶100; see also Id. at ¶¶ 97-105); (4) unlawful retaliation on the basis of race, color, and disability in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and Cal. Gov't Code §§ 12955(f), (g), and 12955.7 (id. at ¶¶ 106-10); (5) violations of Cal. Bus. & Profs. Code § 17200 (“UCL”) (id. at ¶¶ 111-22); (6) negligence (id. at ¶¶ 123-26).

         On February 16, 2017, after the close of discovery and after Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment had been fully briefed, the Davis Plaintiffs settled their claims with Defendants. (See Dkt. 69.) The joint stipulation provided that the settling parties were to bear their own costs and attorneys' fees. (Dkt. 87.) Gomez's claims were not settled, however, and the court proceeded to hear argument on the partial summary judgment motion as to her claims. The court granted Defendants' summary judgment and dismissed the case. (Dkt. 105.) Defendants now move to recover reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with this matter, including expert witness fees, in the amount of $131, 285.75 pursuant to the statutory fee-shifting provisions codified in the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2), the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Cal. Gov't Code § 12989.2, and the California Disabled Persons Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 55. (Dkt. 112.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Attorneys' Fees under the FHA and FEHA

         In actions brought by private persons under the Fair Housing Act, “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fees and costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2). Likewise, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) provides: “the court may, in its discretion, award the prevailing party, other than the state, reasonable attorney's fees and costs.” Cal. Gov't Code § 12989.2. Although these provisions do not distinguish between prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants, courts applying the Fair Housing Act's fee-shifting provision have exercised their discretion by awarding fees to a prevailing defendant only “upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978); see Kalai v. Hawaii, Dep't of Human Servs. Hawaii Pub. Hous. Auth., Civ. No. 06-00433 JMS-LEK, 2009 WL 2224428, at *4 (D. Haw. July 23, 2009); see also Rosenman v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro, 91 Cal.App.4th 859, 874 (2001) (addressing the application of Christianburg to California FEHA claims). In applying this standard, “it is important that the district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation.” Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22.

         Defendants' initial motion for attorneys' fees focused exclusively on the fact that they were the prevailing parties in the instant litigation. (Mot. 8-10.) In light of the court's March 8 Order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants on all claims and dismissing the case, the court finds that Defendants are correct that they are the “prevailing parties” for purposes of determining fee-shifting under the FHA and FEHA. Nonetheless, as Plaintiff notes, prevailing party status alone does not justify a fee award to prevailing defendants. (Opp'n 7-9.) Rather, a prevailing defendant also bears the burden of demonstrating that a suit was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Plaintiff argues that a fee award is not justified because she made reasonable arguments and Defendants' fee motion failed to address this standard in the opening brief. (Id.)

         In their reply brief, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's suit was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation on several grounds. First, Defendants note that Plaintiff's case did not raise any “issues of first impression or novel theories.” (Reply 5.) Although some courts have found that litigating an issue of first impression or a novel theory may provide a reason for denying a request for fees, none have held that it is a prerequisite to denying fees. See, e.g., Gibson v. Office of Atty. Gen., State of California, 561 F.3d 920, 929 (9th Cir. 2009) (denying fees where plaintiff raised a question of first impression as an application of the ordinary standard that “[a] case may be deemed frivolous only when the ‘result is obvious or the . . . arguments of error are wholly without merit'” (quoting Karam v. City of Burbank, 352 F.3d 1188, 1195 (9th Cir. 2003))). To the contrary, a number of courts have denied attorneys' fees to prevailing defendants where the plaintiff had some “reasonable factual basis for filing suit, ” even if the case presented no novel issues. Dow v. Lowe's Home Improvement, Inc., No. C05-3077 MMC, 2007 WL 196746, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 23, 2007); see also Cummings v. Benco Building Services, 11 Cal.App.4th 1383 (1992) (denying fees to prevailing defendant under FEHA where the action was “a routine case in which the plaintiff merely failed to achieve success on her claim”).

         Defendants also argue that the instant case was frivolous and unreasonable because some of Plaintiff's claim had been litigated and resolved in an earlier action. Further, Defendants note that Plaintiff's claim ultimately failed because of a lack of evidence that Defendants acted on the basis of discriminatory motives or violated federal and state anti-discrimination law.

         Although the court ultimately concluded that Defendant should prevail at summary judgment, it does not find that this was a case where Plaintiff's suit was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. First, although part of Plaintiff's claim under the FHA and FEHA was resolved in a prior Unlawful Detainer action, it was not unreasonable for Plaintiff to raise the issue in her federal action. As the court noted in the summary judgment order, Unlawful Detainer actions are afforded “very limited res judicata effect.” Vella v. Hudgins, 20 Cal.3d 251, 255 (1977). Here, the court found that the particular stipulated judgment entered into by the parties had preclusive effect, but it was not unreasonable for Plaintiff to think that the summary nature of such proceedings, along with the limited language of the waiver- “resolv[ing] any claims or causes of action involving ADA parking violations only””-may have allowed her to relitigate the claim in this action. (See SJ Order at 7-8.); Edwards v. Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., 471 F.Supp.2d 1032, 1033 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (holding that a time-barred claim was not frivolous because how the procedural rule “would be applied to the instant action could not have been entirely clear to either party”). Likewise, on Plaintiff's retaliation claim under the FHA and FEHA, the court actually found that Plaintiff had created a triable issue as to whether she had engaged in protected activity and was subject to an adverse action by Defendant. (See Id. 11-13.) The court ultimately granted summary judgment due to the lack of evidence demonstrating a causal link between the alleged protected activity and adverse action. Thus, this is not a situation where the claim was “wholly without merit, ” Galen v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 477 F.3d 652, 667 (9th Cir. 2007), but instead where there was ultimately not enough evidence to proceed to trial. See Shah v. Mt. Zion Hospital and Medical Center, 642 F.2d 268, 270 (9th Cir. 1981) (affirming denial of fee where plaintiff “had not established a prima facie case of discrimination, ” but the claim was “not entirely ‘frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation'”).

         B. Attorneys' Fees under the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the CDPA

         Defendants also seek to recover fees pursuant to Cal. Civ. Code § 55. Section 55 provides that “[a]ny person who is aggrieved or potentially aggrieved by a violation of Section 54 or 54.1 of this code . . . may bring an action to enjoin the violation. The prevailing party in the action shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees.” Cal. Civ. Code § 55. Section 54 and 54.1, in turn, codify the California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA) and provide that “[i]ndividuals with disabilities shall be entitled to full and equal access . . . to all housing accommodations.” For actions brought pursuant to the CDPA, the California Supreme Court held that “the plain language ...


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