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When the lawsuit is frivolous, employee may have to pay employer’s attorneys’ fees

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s some good news from the litigation front. In some cases, employees who file frivolous discrimination lawsuits may actually end up reaching into their own wallets—to pay their employers’ legal fees.

Recent case: Daniel Villanueva must have thought he had a slam-dunk discrimination case against his employer, the city of Colton. After all, Villanueva is Hispanic, and the city demoted him to a job that paid less.

But the city said Villanueva had a troubled work history that began a couple of years earlier when he ignored an alarm indicting trouble at the wastewater treatment plant where he worked. Instead of searching for the problem, Villanueva left the plant. The city suspended Villanueva for five days.

The next year, budget problems led the city to implement a reduction in force. Because Villanueva was the least senior employee in his job category, his position was eliminated. However, he was able to “bump” into another position, effectively taking a demotion and a minor pay cut. Villanueva sued, saying the “demotion” was based on discrimination.

But Villanueva presented absolutely no admissible evidence to cast doubt on the city’s explanation. The trial court dismissed the case—and ordered him to pay almost $40,000 for the city’s attorneys’ fees. Villanueva appealed, but the appeals court let the decision stand. It reasoned that the prevailing party is entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees—and, in this case, it was clear the entire lawsuit had been frivolous from start to finish. (Villanueva v. City of Colton, No. E042188, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate Division, 2008)

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