Court Denies Attorney Fees to Prevailing Defendant in Sexual Orientation Discrimination Case

In Tate v. Levy Rest. Holdings, LLC, No. 14-CV-2056, 2015 WL 9076230 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 16, 2015), the court stated and applied the standard for awarding attorney fees to a prevailing defendant in an employment discrimination case.
You can read about the Eastern District’s dismissal of claims brought by the plaintiff – a gay male waiter who alleged that he was subjected to discrimination/harassment by Houston Rockets players based on his sexual orientation – here.
The law:
Although an award of fees is presumed when the prevailing party is the plaintiff … fees should be awarded to prevailing defendants only when the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or … the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so. Thus, a court may not assess attorneys’ fees against a plaintiff simply because the plaintiff does not prevail, as that would undercut the statutory purpose of promoting vigorous enforcement of employment discrimination laws. Consequently, although a prevailing defendant need not show that the plaintiff acted in bad faith, the burden of establishing that the plaintiff’s claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless is a heavy one, and it is very rare that victorious defendants in civil rights cases will recover attorneys’ fees[.]
Applying this standard, the court confirmed a Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation (R&R) denying attorney fees to prevailing party Rocketball Ltd.
According to the R&R, the claims in plaintiff’s amended complaint “were not frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” It noted that the complaint “contains a detailed exposition of facts and circumstances that would lead to the conclusion that Rocketball was in some way responsible for changes in the plaintiff’s conditions of employment” and “provides a basis for concluding that those changes were related to the plaintiff’s perceived sexual orientation, which would constitute discrimination in violation of the NYCHRL.”
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