Defendant cannot recover costs under FEHA, absent finding the action was “objectively groundless”

Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District, No. S213100 (Cal. May 14, 2015)

If the defendant prevails in a case brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), can it recover courts costs as a matter of right, as provided in Code of Civil Procedure § 1032, “or only in the discretion of the trial court pursuant to Gov. Code § 12965, a provision of FEHA itself?” And if the court has such discretion, then what is the legal standard for determining a cost award to a prevailing defendant?

The California Supreme Court resolves these questions in a case brought by a firefighter who sued his fire district under the FEHA, alleging disability discrimination. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant and then awarded it over $5,000 in costs. In so doing, the court outright rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the court should apply to the cost claim the same “asymmetrical” legal standard in Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978) – namely, under which a defendant (unlike a plaintiff), even though the prevailing party would not receive attorney fees, unless the plaintiff’s action was objectively groundless. In awarding costs to the defendant in this case, the trial court made no findings that the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that the Christianburg standard applied only to attorney fees, not costs.

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court reversed, holding that the award of costs was wrong, in the absence of any finding the underlying action was “objectively groundless.” The Supreme Court’s adoption of an asymmetrical Christianburg standard for awarding fees and costs under the FEHA turns on a key analogy to similar awards under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which “makes fees and costs parallel” and gives trial courts discretion to award both, relying on the Christianburg standard, even though that case only involved attorney fees. Bottom line: In an FEHA case, the award of costs are controlled by Gov. Code § 12965, not Civil Procedure Code § 1032; and the awards must conform to the asymmetrical Christianburg standard.