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Greco v. Velvet Cactus, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 25, 2014



SARAH S. VANCE, District Judge.

Before the Court is defendants Velvet Cactus, LLC and Scott Dickinson's motion for attorney's fees. Because the Court finds that plaintiff asserted a frivolous Title VII claim against defendant Scott Dickinson, the Court GRANTS IN PART defendants' motion and awards defendants attorney's fees in the amount of $180.00.

I. Background

Plaintiff Joseph Raymond Greco, III filed this suit against defendants Velvet Cactus, LLC and Scott Dickinson asserting claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as state law tort claims.[1] On June 27, 2014, the Court granted summary judgment against plaintiff on his Title VII claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the pendent state law claims.[2] More specifically, the Court dismissed: 1) plaintiff's Title VII claims against Dickinson because a Title VII claim is not viable against a non-employer;[3] 2) plaintiff's Title VII sexual harassment claim against Velvet Cactus because "uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that Greco's behavior failed to send a consistent signal that Dickinson's conduct was unwelcome;"[4] and 3) plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim against Velvet Cactus because "Greco [] failed to present any facts indicating the existence of a nexus between his alleged rejection of Dickinson's advances and [Velvet Cactus'] decision to terminate him."[5]

Defendants now move the Court to award attorney's fees under 28 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Defendants argue that they "should be awarded its reasonable attorneys' fees associated with having to defend Plaintiff's baseless Title VII claims."[6] In response, plaintiff argues that defendants are not entitled to attorney's fees and, even if they were, that "Defendants' requested fees are unreasonable."[7]

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

It is the general rule in the United States that in the absence of legislation providing otherwise, litigants are liable for their own attorney's fees. See Christianburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 434 U.S. 412, 415 (1978) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Co. v. Wilderness Society, 412 U.S. 240 (1975)). Congress has, however, provided limited exceptions to the general rule under selected statutes protecting particular federal rights. See id. Some of these statutes make fee awards mandatory for a prevailing plaintiff. Other statutes make fee awards permissive but limit the parties who can recover to prevailing plaintiffs. See id. at 415-416. Many of these statutes, however, provide the district court with a great deal of flexibility and discretion in awarding attorney's fees to either a prevailing plaintiff or a prevailing defendant. Section 706(k) of the 1964 Civil Rights Act falls within this last category. Section 706(k) provides:

In any action or proceeding under this title the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fees as part of the costs, and the Commission and the United States shall be liable for costs the same as a private person.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k).

Under § 706(k), a prevailing plaintiff is to be awarded attorney's fees in all but exceptional circumstances. See Christianburg, 434 U.S. at 417. However, the policy considerations that support granting attorney's fees to a prevailing plaintiff are not present when there is a prevailing defendant. As such, a district court may grant a prevailing defendant's attorney's fees only when the court in its discretion finds that the plaintiff's claims were "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." Id. at 421. "[T]o determine whether a suit is frivolous, a court must ask whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful." Stover v. Hattiesburg Pub. Sch. Dist., 549 F.3d 985, 988 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Jones v. Texas Tech Univ., 656 F.2d 1137, 1145 (5th Cir. 1981)). When making this determination, the court may consider factors such as "whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case, whether the defendant offered to settle, and whether the court held a full trial." Myers v. City of W. Monroe, 211 F.3d 289, 292 (5th Cir. 2000).

Although defendants may be entitled to attorney's fees in some circumstances, "private enforcement would be substantially diminished if parties who had good faith claims under the civil rights statutes faced the prospect of always having to pay their opponent's fees should they lose." Vaughner v. Pulito, 804 F.2d 873, 878 (5th Cir. 1986). Thus, the frivolity standard "is intended to ensure that plaintiffs with uncertain but arguably meritorious claims are not altogether deterred from initiating litigation by the threat of incurring onerous legal fees should their claims fail." Myers, 211 F.3d at 292 n.1 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, claims do not need to be "airtight" to avoid being frivolous, and courts must be careful not to use the benefit of perfect hindsight in assessing frivolity. Christianburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22.

Finally, when determining whether a particular claim is frivolous, the court should consider each claim individually, as "a defendant may deserve fees even if not all the plaintiff's claims were frivolous." Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2214 (2011). If a suit involves both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, however, a prevailing defendant may ...

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