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Sticker shock: Fee awards can dwarf money damages

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Here’s a powerful reminder to managers and supervisors that they must follow the letter and the spirit of discrimination laws: A recent California appeals court that heard a reverse discrimination case upheld an attorneys’ fee award that was 35 times higher than the dollar amount awarded to the employee who had been discriminated against.

Recent case: Allen Hartman sued the city and county of San Francisco for reverse discrimination, claiming he had been passed over for promotion because he is white. A jury awarded him just over $30,000 in damages.

The court also awarded $1,113,905 in attorneys’ fees. The city, shocked at the fees, appealed. It argued that three times the actual damages was a reasonable fee, not more than $1 million. But the appeals court disagreed. Although it knocked a few thousand dollars off the bill for legal work, it let most of the fee stand.

The court said that in a civil rights case, the proper measure was how much success the attorneys had in bringing the case, not how much in damages their client was due. (Hartman v. City and County of San Francisco, No. A114069, Court of Appeal of California, 2007)

Final note: Another lesson from this case: Sometimes it’s better to settle than to push forward. Always discuss the ramifications of a trial with your attorneys. Tilting at windmills is a task best left to fictional characters, not HR professionals.

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