Wednesday, November 2, 2011

WDNY gives green light to fees-only lawsuit under Title VI

This case will be of interest mainly to employment lawyers. A federal judge in the Western District of New York finds that a plaintiff who won her State law discrimination claim in the State Division of Human Rights may bring a lawsuit in federal court in order to recover her attorneys' fees under Title VII. The attorneys' fees-only lawsuit is permissible.

The case is Ballard v. HSBC Bank, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123661 (WDNY Oct. 26, 2011). Title VII says that Federal courts have jurisdiction over any actions "brought under this subchapter." The court frames the issue as follows: "whether Ballard's claims solely for attorney's fees and costs are 'actions brought under this subchapter,' or, posed differently, whether Ballard can recover costs arising out of administrative and state proceedings." The answer is yes. Judge Skretny agrees with the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits, which have already addressed this issue. (The Fourth Circuit went the other way on this issue). As the Second Circuit has not yet addressed this issue, this is an important case.

Cases brought solely for attorneys' fees are in fact actions brought under Title VII. Ballard could not seek attorneys' fees in the State Division of Human Rights, which ruled in her favor on the racial discrimination claim, awarding her $35,000 for pain and suffering. So there is no res judicata problem.

What makes this case unique is that Ballard prevailed in the State Division only on her New York State Human Rights Law claim, which does not provide for attorneys' fees. The State Division did not make reference to her Title VII claim, even though she did dual-file her discrimination charge with the State Division and the EEOC. Title VII, of course, does provide for attorneys' fees. The Western District of New York says that Ballard did what she was supposed to in filing in the State Division, and State and Federal discrimination claims are essentially the same animal. The Court concludes that "if a party is successful in the very action that Title VII referred her to and required her to invoke (i.e. the Division proceedings), she will accordingly be deemed a 'prevailing party' under that statute. This is true, in part, because the elements proving a discrimination claim are virtually identical under federal and state anti-discrimination law."

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