4th Circuit CoA Rules on Attorneys Fees in Unsuccessful Title VII Suit

The EEOC v. Great Steaks, Inc., EEOC accused Great Steaks of subjecting female employees to a sexually hostile work environment. Although at the start of the case the EEOC asserted its claim on behalf of seven or eight claimants, that number diminished to just one by trial. After a three-day trial, the jury rendered a verdict in Great Steaks’ favor. Great Steaks subsequently moved for an award of attorneys’ fees under three provisions: Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k); the Equal Access to Justice Act’s (EAJA) mandatory fee provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), and 28 U.S.C. § 1927. The district court denied the motion for fees in its entirety. The Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed.

Under Title VII, defendants can obtain attorneys’ fees only if the suit was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so. Such fees are to be applied “sparingly.” That the EEOC survived all dispositive motions before the jury verdict was relevant to the inquiry, but not determinative. Looking at the merits, the Court found that although only one plaintiff was left by trial, that plaintiff’s testimony was sufficient for the claim to be non-frivolous, even if not ultimately credited by the jury. Thus, no fees could be awarded under Title VII. The Court then held that because a more specific statutory provision applied to the case, the fee-shifting provisions in the EAJA are unavailable to the defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1927 permits fees against attorneys who abuse court processes in bad faith, apart from the ultimate outcome of the case. Here, there was no such abuse.