Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District: Employer’s Perspective
By Judith S. Islas
Judith Islas is of-counsel at Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and is based in the San Diego office. Judith practices labor and employment law, representing employers in all types of employment litigation at the trial and appellate levels.
The holding in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District,1 which changed the rule on recovery of costs in employment discrimination cases, will impact key dynamics in litigating these cases. Departing from multiple published state appellate cases,2 Ninth Circuit,3 and other federal cases,4 this newly-created rule severely restricts the ability of prevailing employers to recover ordinary litigation costs in cases brought under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Paradoxically, the laws enacted to protect against unequal treatment now mandate unequal treatment. Prevailing employees are automatically awarded costs; prevailing employers are not. To recover costs, prevailing employers must meet a heightened standard: they must prove the case was groundless, which will require another costly effort that employers may have little appetite for on the heels of incurring significant costs to defend the case. This means, even after being cleared of any wrongdoing, the employer will not be able to recover costs, unless it mounts an expensive battle and convinces a trial judge the case was groundless. This is a sharp turn in the law, which, since the mid-1800s, has equally allowed both prevailing plaintiffs and defendants to recover costs. This case not only impacts employment discrimination cases, but opens the classic Pandora’s box, by incentivizing non-prevailing parties to challenge costs awards under a myriad of statutory schemes.
This means, even after being cleared of any wrongdoing, the employer will not be able to recover costs, unless it mounts an expensive battle and convinces a trial judge the case was groundless.