Linsley v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Decision Date07 October 1999
Docket NumberNo. B121382.,B121382.
Citation75 Cal.App.4th 762,89 Cal.Rptr.2d 429
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesScott LINSLEY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION et al., Defendants and Respondents.



Plaintiff, Scott Linsley, appeals from a judgment awarding attorney fees pursuant to Government Code1 section 12965, subdivision (b) to defendants, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation ("Fox"), John Suciu, and Gloria Dickey, as the prevailing parties on a claim for unlawful discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"). (§ 12900 et seq.) Plaintiff, who signed a release of all claims in exchange for the payment of money prior to the filing of the present lawsuit, contends the trial court erred because there has never been a determination that his discrimination cause of action was unreasonable, frivolous, or meritless. We disagree and affirm the judgment.


Plaintiff filed this action on May 30, 1996, and alleged that he was employed by Fox as a technical support manager on May 12, 1986. Plaintiff worked under the management of Mr. Suciu, an executive management employee. Ms. Dickey held the title of Vice President, Corporate Personnel. The complaint alleged that when Mr. Suciu began working for Fox in 1994, he instituted a program whereby older, senior, and higher paid workers were terminated in favor of younger, less remunerated employees. Plaintiff was terminated on May 31, 1995. At the time, he was 55 years old, had a heart condition, and was one of the higher paid management employees. The complaint alleged causes of action for: breach of an implied-in-fact contract (first); breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (second); wrongful termination in violation of the FEHA and public policy (third); and misrepresentation and deceit (fourth). In the third cause of action, plaintiff alleged he was terminated in part because of his age and medical disability in violation of the FEHA. The trial court subsequently sustained a demurrer to the second cause of action without leave to amend.

As to the remaining causes of action, defendants filed a summary judgment motion on August 20, 1996, based in part on a settlement agreement and general release plaintiff had executed for which he received, among other things, $17,000. The trial court denied the motion finding plaintiff had presented a triable issue of material fact as to whether he was coerced into signing the settlement agreement and general release. The trial court later, however, granted defendants' reconsideration motion as to Ms. Dickey. The trial court then entered judgment on behalf of Ms. Dickey.

On February 28, 1997, defendants filed a petition for peremptory writ of mandate in this division seeking an order directing the trial court to grant the summary judgment motion. We issued an alternative writ of mandate and set the cause for oral argument. On June 3, 1998, the petition was granted in part and dismissed in part. The dismissal was as to Ms. Dickey because the petition in which she was a named petitioner had become moot due to the trial court's favorable ruling on her reconsideration motion. In an unpublished opinion, we determined as a matter of law that plaintiff executed a valid release for which he received $17,000 and other valuable consideration. (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. v. Superior Court (June 3, 1997) B109911 [nonpub. opn.].) On remand, the trial court entered judgment against plaintiff.

On December 22, 1997, defendants moved for attorney fees pursuant to section 12965, subdivision (b). Defendants sought $25,144.20 in fees on the ground plaintiffs unlawful discrimination claims were unreasonable and meritless. In support of the contention, defendants argued that plaintiff filed this action in derogation of the valid release he had signed for which he received consideration. Plaintiff opposed the summary judgment motion, contending defendants had failed to establish the unlawful discrimination claim was unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious because no determination of merits of the discrimination claim had been reached. This was because the summary judgment motion was granted on the basis of the release. Plaintiff argued neither the order granting summary judgment nor this court's unpublished opinion discussed whether plaintiff had been the victim of unlawful discrimination. The trial court granted the motion and awarded defendants attorney fees in the amount of $25,144.20. After notice of entry of judgment was served, this timely appeal followed.


Plaintiff contends the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees under section 12965, subdivision (b) which provides in part: "In actions brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party reasonable attorneys' fees and costs...." An attorney fee award under this section is reviewed for abuse of discretion. (Bond v. Pulsar Video Productions (1996) 50 Cal. App.4th 918, 921, 57 Cal.Rptr.2d 917; Cummings v. Benco Building Services (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1383, 1386, 15 Cal. Rptr.2d 53.)

Both California and federal law prohibit employers from unlawfully discriminating against employees on the basis of their age. (§ 12941, subd. (a); 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.) The language of the state and federal anti discrimination statutes is different in some respects; however, because their objectives are the same, California courts have relied upon federal law interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") (29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.) to interpret the FEHA. (Reno v. Baird (1998) 18 Cal.4th 640, 647, 76 Cal.Rptr.2d 499 957 P.2d 1333; Hon v. Marshall (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 470, 475, 62 Cal.Rptr.2d 11; Bond v. Pulsar Video Productions, supra, 50 Cal.App.4th at pp. 921-922, 57 Cal. Rptr.2d 917; Janken v. GM Hughes Electronics (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 55, 66, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 741; Addy v. Bliss & Glennon (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 205, 215, 51 Cal. Rptr.2d 642; Cummings v. Benco Building Services, supra, 11 Cal.App.4th at p. 1386, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 53.)

In Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412, 417, 421, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648, the United States Supreme Court set forth the standard for determining when attorney fees should be awarded to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII case as distinguished from a successful plaintiff. The Supreme Court held: "[A] prevailing plaintiff ... `should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.'" (Id. at pp. 416-417, 98 S.Ct. 694.) By contrast, a defendant who prevails in a discrimination claim is not necessarily entitled to an award of fees. (Patton v. County of Kings (9th Cir.1988) 857 F.2d 1379, 1381; Cummings v. Benco Building, supra, 11 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1390-1392, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 53.) In Christiansburg Garment Co., the Supreme Court held: "In sum, a district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII case upon a finding that the plaintiffs action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." (Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, supra, 434 U.S. at p. 421, 98 S.Ct. 694; Hon v. Marshall, supra, 53 Cal.App.4th at pp. 475-76, 62 Cal.Rptr.2d 11; Bond v. Pulsar Video Productions, supra, 50 Cal.App.4th at pp. 921-922, 57 Cal.Rptr.2d 917.) The United States Supreme Court determined that such a rule was necessary to effectuate the congressional purpose of encouraging suits by discrimination victims while deterring frivolous litigation. (Hughes v. Rowe (1980) 449 U.S. 5, 14, 101 S.Ct. 173, 66 L.Ed.2d 163; Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper (1980) 447 U.S. 752 762, 100 S.Ct. 2455, 65 L.Ed.2d 488.) In Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, supra, 434 U.S. at pages 421-22, 98 S.Ct. 694, the Supreme Court stated: "In applying these criteria, it is important that a district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation. This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success. No matter how honest one's belief that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter how meritorious one's claim may appear at the outset, the court of litigation is rarely predictable. Decisive facts may not emerge until discovery or trial. The law may change or clarify in the midst of litigation. Even when the law or the facts appear questionable or unfavorable at the outset, a party may have an entirely reasonable ground for bringing suit." (Italics original; e.g., Warren v. City of Carlsbad (9th Cir.1995) 58 F.3d 439, 444.)

Here, plaintiff contends the award was erroneous because the trial court awarded the fees solely on the basis of the summary judgment which was premised on the validity of the release. He argues that before attorney fees may be awarded, there must be a determination on the merits of the unlawful discrimination claim. The arguments are premised on Hon v. Marshall, supra, 53 Cal.App.4th at pages 475 and 477-478, 62 Cal.Rptr.2d 11, which framed the primary issue before the court as whether summary judgment on the issue of failure to exhaust administrative remedies precluded an award of attorney fees under section 12965. This was because the determination of the exhaustion issue required no consideration of the merits of the discrimination claim. Plaintiff also relies on Cummings v. Benco Building, supra, 11 Cal.App.4th at page 1386,15...

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