Many readers of my blogs and the gotovertime website know that a major tool that employees have in getting employers to comply with the law is that the employee can frequently recover attorneys fees if they prevail. Frequently, defense attorneys discount this by stating that judges "never" award attorneys fees in excess of the amounts that are recovered. However, a recent case illustrates that this is simply not the case. In Harman v. City and County of San Francisco, 158 Cal. App. 4th 407, the Plaintiff was awarded $30,300 in damages for racial discrimination. The appellate court then upheld an award of $1,113,905 in attorneys fees. In particular the Court held that "[t]he law does not mandate, however, that attorney fees bear a percentage relationship to the ultimate recovery of damages in a civil rights case."
This is an extremely useful case because frequently, defendants can make mountains out of mole hills. If plaintiffs were limited to recovering only a percentage of the amount recovered, it would eliminate effective representation for any claims less than a couple hundred thousand dollars. Many employment cases simply will not amount to over $100,000, so plaintiffs' attorneys are reluctant to take them. Hopefully, this case will set a good precedent that plainitffs are entitled to their full attorney fees, even if the actual value of the case is small.
I will point out that to many individual plaintiffs, such as many of the ones I represent, $30,000 is no small amount. Without the proper award of attorneys fees, many of these people would not be able to receive adequate legal representation.
It is also interesting to note that the attorneys fees in the Harman case were paid largely to a conservative legal foundation, The Pacific Legal Foundation. The Pacific Legal Foundation lists its goals as representing individuals who have "grown weary of overregulation by big government, overindulgence by the courts, and excessive interference in the American way of life." (See http://www.pacificlegal.org/?mvcTask=about). Hopefully, they will put the $744,756.75 that they were awarded to use in insuring that the courts are open to all employees who rights have been violated.