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.