One of the biggest hurdles to a plaintiff in pursuing a lawsuit is the cost of doing so. Suing someone, especially a corporation, is never easy. Hiring an attorney is usually necessary to have a reasonable chance of succeeding.
However, legal support isn’t free. Lawyers have to make a living, just like everyone else. But sometimes a lawyer’s fee can be so prohibitively expensive that the cost of the lawsuit exceeds the potential financial recovery.
Recognizing this problem, there are laws that allow plaintiffs in certain types of cases to recover their attorneys’ fees if they win. These are usually called fee-shifting statutes. One such statute is found in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fee Shifting Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, sex, color, and race in a variety of settings, including the workplace. This law also allows an employee who wins an equal employment discrimination lawsuit to recover “reasonable” attorneys’ fees. The trick is deciding what amount of attorneys’ fees qualify as “reasonable.” Doris Nohemi Garcia Hernandez’s recent lawsuit against Chipotle delves into this question.
The Facts of Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.
Hernandez worked for Chipotle but was fired when she became pregnant. She filed a charge (also known as a complaint) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2012, alleging that her firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).
In 2014, Hernandez sued Chipotle, alleging pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII. She won, resulting in a jury award of $50,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. However, the court later reduced her punitive damages to $300,000.
Because Hernandez was successful in her Title VII lawsuit against Chipotle, she was entitled to recover her attorneys’ fees. She submitted a request for $838,122, reflecting 2,073 hours of billable work. Chipotle argued that this request was unreasonable in both the number of hours spent on Hernandez’s case and the rate charged per hour.
Determining the Reasonableness of Hernandez’s Attorneys’ Fees
Chipotle admitted that the fee-shifting provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 supported Hernandez’s request for attorneys’ fees but argued that the amount she requested was unreasonable in part because the total number of billed hours was excessive.
As an overarching principle, courts will ensure that requested attorneys’ fees are reasonable, compared to a ballpark estimate. For example, a court will not second-guess an attorney who spends 9.3 hours on a motion instead of 7.9 hours. But if that motion served no conceivable purpose in advancing the plaintiff’s legal position, a court may refuse to include the time spent on that motion in the plaintiff’s request for attorneys’ fees.
In analyzing whether Hernandez’s attorneys’ fees were reasonable, the court used a three-part test, commonly referred to as the “lodestar” method.
With the lodestar method, the court first determines whether the total number of hours spent was reasonable. Second, the court establishes the prevailing market rate, or lodestar, for the attorneys’ work. Third, the court decides whether a multiplier is necessary. A multiplier can be used as a basis for adjusting the fee amount where a case is particularly difficult or risky.
Here, the court concluded the total amount of time was, for the most part, reasonable. The court reached this conclusion after considering several facts.
First, the court took into account the fact that Hernandez’s original attorneys had to withdraw their representation due to a potential conflict of interest. When Hernandez’s original attorneys withdrew after representing her for two years, her new attorneys had to play “catch up” on the entire case. This required an extensive review of Hernandez’s file. In fact, Hernandez’s total request for 2,073 billable hours was actually an underestimate because it did not include the two years of work done by her original attorneys.
Second, Hernandez was a relatively new employee at Chipotle when she was fired. Because she never fully learned Chipotle’s practices and policies, her attorneys had to investigate this critical information.
Third, Hernandez and other key witnesses only spoke Spanish, requiring the use of translators and dramatically increasing the amount of time billed.
Fourth, Chipotle’s high turnover rate meant that key witnesses were constantly leaving the company. Hernandez’s attorneys spent significant time tracking down these key witnesses.
Fifth, Chipotle constantly changed its reasons for firing Hernandez. Each time Chipotle presented a different defense, Hernandez’s attorneys had to investigate that new theory and conduct additional discovery, often involving Chipotle’s own witnesses.
With respect to the lodestar, or prevailing market rate for an attorney, both sides were largely in agreement. There was also no dispute that a multiplier was not required.
However, the court did find several small discrepancies and mistakes in the billable calculations that reduced Hernandez’s attorneys’ fees by $12,500.23. After that adjustment, the court awarded Hernandez and her counsel the significant sum of $825,621.77 in attorneys’ fees.
Summing It Up
- In many types of employment discrimination cases, including those brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a plaintiff who wins his or her lawsuit can recover reasonable attorneys’ fees.
- In deciding whether an attorney’s fees are reasonable, a court will use the lodestar method, which considers three factors:
1. whether the total number of hours spent on the case was reasonable;
2. what the prevailing market rate, or lodestar, should be for the attorney’s work; and
3. whether a multiplier should be applied to the total fee amount.
- As an overarching principle, a court will not nitpick or precisely audit the amount that a plaintiff requests for attorneys’ fees. Instead, it will confirm that the amount requested by the plaintiff provides a good ballpark amount such that justice is served.
Have you suffered from employment discrimination based on your gender or pregnancy status? Don’t let the fear of attorneys’ fees discourage you from talking to a lawyer. Please contact our office so we can help you understand and enforce your rights.