The New York Court of Appeals has provided guidance on the Equal Access to Justice Act, a New York statute that allows certain victorious plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees when they prevail against the state. The issue here: can the winning plaintiff recover fees if she wins a sexual harassment case under the Human Rights Law against the State of New York?
The case is Kimmel v. State of New York, decided on May 9. The plurality says the plaintiff can recover fees. This case resulted in a big win for the plaintiff, who received a jury award of more than $700,000, including 87,000 in past pain and suffering. At the time this case went to trial, unlike Title VII and other federal civil rights statutes, the Human Rights Law did not provide for attorneys' fees for victorious employment discrimination plaintiffs. (The HRL has since been amended to provide for fees for sex discrimination cases only).
What complicates this case is the wording of the statute, which says that prevailing plaintiffs can recover fees "in any civil action brought against the state, unless the court finds that the position of the state was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." The CPLR defines "action" as "any civil action or proceeding brought to seek judicial review of any action of the state." Except for cases brought in the Court of Claims. The state in this case argues that "judicial review" under the statute modifies "any civil action" and "proceeding" and therefore restricts EAJA fees to Article 78 proceedings and other cases seeking review of a state administrative action.
The Court of Appeals rejects that narrow statutory construction. Chief Judge Fiore says that, under this interpretation, since Article 78 and injunctive relief actions the statutory exclusion for cases brought in the Court of Claims would have no meaning, as that Court cannot entertain Article 78 proceedings. We do not want to interpret statutes in a way that would leave its provisions superfluous. The Court of Appeals employs other methods of statutory interpretation (and looks to the legislative history of the EAJA) in finding that Human Rights Law claims against the state entitle the prevailing plaintiff to attorneys' fees.