Employee Relations 12/21/2012
California Supreme Court Rules that Prevailing Defendants in Disability Access Lawsuits Can Recover Attorney Fees
The California Supreme Court on Tuesday, in Jankey
v. Lee, ruled that a prevailing defendant in a lawsuit
filed for injunctive relief regarding disability access is
entitled to recover attorney fees. The decision answered the
question of whether the federal Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) pre-empts California statue that requires the mandatory
awarding of attorney fees to any prevailing party in a disability
The California Disabled Persons Act (DPA), which authorizes the lawsuits for injunctive relief by those with disabilities who are denied full access to public places or facilities, contains a provision (Civil Code §55) that automatically awards attorney fees to the prevailing party (either plaintiff or defendant) regardless of whether or not the suit was frivolous. ADA law, however, only permits attorney fee awards to a prevailing defendant if the plaintiff’s complaint was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.
In Jankey v. Lee, the plaintiff asserted that ADA law pre-empted DPA’s authorization of broader fee entitlement and the lawsuit was not found to be frivolous; therefore, he should not be required to pay the prevailing defendant’s attorney’s fees. The California Supreme Court held that ADA law does not pre-empt this section of the DPA regarding attorney fees in disability access cases since DPA affords greater protection.
Tuesday’s ruling will most likely result in fewer disability access lawsuits being brought under this particular section of the DPA since the non-prevailing party will acquire the risk of paying the attorney fees of the prevailing party.