Monday, May 8, 2017

Superior Court OKs Denial of Attorneys' Fees to Victorious Plaintiff

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently approved a trial court's denial of attorneys' fees to a plaintiff who had won a jury verdict under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PaHRA) against her former employer. Despite having proved to the jury's satisfaction that her former employer had illegally terminated her employment following her diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, the Superior Court found no error with the trial judge's subsequent characterization of the plaintiff's evidence as "weak" and undeserving of an attorneys' fee award. 

Valerie Huyett—a 38-year old married mother of two young children—had worked for Doug's Family Pharmacy for 11 years as a pharmacy technician. On August 24, 2006, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma; four days later, the owner of the pharmacy fired her. Mrs. Huyett claimed that the owner terminated her because he could not deal with scheduling issues surrounding her cancer treatments. She stated that he even proposed that she sign a formal resignation, in exchange for which he would pay her a small severance and agree not to contest her claim for unemployment benefits. A pharmacist who supervised Mrs. Huyett testified at trial that the owner had described Mrs. Huyett's firing as a "win/win" situation, because she didn't have to worry about calling out for work to get her treatments while collecting unemployment, while he didn't have to worry about finding coverage for her work. Mrs. Huyett's treating doctor, however, testified that her cancer diagnosis did not affect her ability to do her job and that her chemotherapy treatments could have been arranged to accommodate her work schedule. 

The jury found in Mrs. Huyett's favor and awarded her $18,894.92 in lost wages—the full amount she requested—plus an additional $2,500 in compensatory damages. Mrs. Huyett then filed a petition as the prevailing party seeking more than $106,000 in attorneys' fees. The trial court denied the petition and awarded no fees, stating that it did not believe the jury's verdict was supported by the evidence and that it did not find the testimony of Mrs. Huyett's supervisor to be credible

The Superior Court upheld that decision. Noting that the language of the PaHRA provides for a discretionary award of attorneys' fees, the Superior Court found no error in the trial court's ultimate decision here. The Court rejected Mrs. Huyett's argument that the trial court was bound by the jury's finding that a violation of the PaHRA occurred when it rendered its verdict. Rather, the Court held that in deciding a petition seeking an award of attorneys' fees, the trial court has discretion under the language of the PaHRA to re-weigh all the evidence of record and come to a different conclusion than the jury as to whether the plaintiff had proven a violation of the law. 

This decision effectively forces successful plaintiffs to try their cases twice; once before a jury to prove a violation of the PaHRA and seek compensatory damages, and then again to a trial court in order to try and obtain reasonable attorneys' fees. The real danger of this opinion, however, is that it may make it more difficult for employees who believe they have been subjected to unlawful discrimination or retaliation under the PaHRA to find attorneys willing to represent them. If a petition for attorneys' fees can be denied even in the face of a favorable jury verdict, attorneys may be less likely to take on questionable, borderline, or even low-value cases, due to the risk of a small jury award followed by a zero-dollar fee recovery.

The full text of the Superior Court's opinion in Huyett v. Doug's Family Pharmacy can be found here


Saturday, April 29, 2017

SEPTA Not Subject to Philadelphia's Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held this week that Philadelphia's Fair Practices Ordinance (FPO)—which provides broader protections against employment discrimination than Pennsylvania state law—has no application to SEPTA's actions as an employer within the City. 

Pennsylvania's Human Relations Act prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment on the basis of the same protected classes identified under federal law; sex, national origin, religion, disability, and age, to name a few. Philadelphia's FPO goes even further than state and federal law currently reach, extending the prohibition against discrimination, retaliation, and harassment to other characteristics, such as victims of domestic and sexual violence, gender identity, marital status, and sexual orientation. The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether SEPTA—as a Commonwealth entity—can be held to Philadelphia's stricter standard when acting as an employer within the City limits? 

The Court held that based upon the language used by the General Assembly in the law on which SEPTA was created, and the language in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the intent of the General Assembly was to subject SEPTA to liability for violations of the Human Relations Act. But no equivalent language exists anywhere to suggest that the General Assembly chose to subject SEPTA to the more expansive scope of Philadelphia's FPO. You can read a copy of the Supreme Court's opinion here.

But for those employees who work for SEPTA and believe they have been subjected to harassment, discrimination, or retaliation on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation, all is not lost. Under Pennsylvania's Human Relations Act and federal law (Title VII)—laws that SEPTA is still subject to—these types of claims are becoming more readily accepted as a type of sex discrimination. Just recently, for example, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, explicitly held that "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination," and on November 4, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania held in EEOC v. Scott Medical Center that "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping... covered by Title VII's prohibitions on discrimination 'because of sex'."   


Thursday, March 2, 2017

PA Court Decision Assists Employees in Litigating Wage Claims

The Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL) requires employers in Pennsylvania to pay wages to employees at regularly defined intervals. An employer's failure to pay employees wages or benefits on time can result in significant monetary damages. Furthermore, if an employee sues under the WPCL and is successful, a reasonable attorneys' fees award to the employee is mandatory. 

On March 1, 2017, in the case of Grimm v. Universal Medical Services, Inc., the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed what effect an employee's agreement to limit his or her recoverable damages to $25,000 or less under a mechanism in the PA Rules of Civil Procedure had on a subsequent award of attorneys' fees. In other words, if an employee agrees to cap his or her damages at $25,000, does that limitation only apply to the amount of wages and penalties the employee can recover, or does it apply to wages, penalties, and attorneys fees?

In a win for future plaintiffs, the Superior Court held that a self-imposed damages limitation of $25,000 under PA Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1 does not limit the amount of attorneys' fees a trial court may award to a successful claimant, even if the effect of that award brings the plaintiff's total recovery to over $25,000. 

In Grimm, for example, the plaintiff sued his ex-employer for failure to reimburse business expenses charged on his personal credit card prior to the end of his employment. Before trial, the plaintiff agreed to limit his damages to less than $25,000 under PA Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1. The jury eventually found in the plaintiff's favor and awarded him more than $14,000 in unpaid reimbursements and liquidated damages. Following the verdict, the plaintiff requested an award of almost $26,000 in reasonable attorneys' fees from the trial court under the WPCL. The employer objected, arguing that because the plaintiff already agreed to limit his damages to $25,000, he could only recover attorneys' fees equal to the difference of $25,000 and the amount of the jury's verdict, or $11,000 ($25,000 cap - $14,000 jury award = $11,000). The trial court disagreed and awarded the entire amount of the requested attorneys' fees. 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed, holding that an award of attorneys' fees to a successful plaintiff under the WPCL does not constitute "damages recoverable" under PA Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1. Rather, such an award is in addition to a jury's verdict and designed to make the successful plaintiff whole. The Superior Court also noted that accepting the employer's argument could result in a situation where WPCL plaintiffs could be discouraged from filing lawsuits for unpaid wages and benefits for fear of accruing burdensome legal costs that would offset any award they might obtain.