On September 18, 2012, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a federal judge in Massachusetts erred in his decision about how much to award in attorney fees and legal expenses to a plaintiff, Carmen Llerena Diaz, who prevailed in an age discrimination case against her former employer. Most employment discrimination laws require employers to reimburse plaintiffs for reasonable attorney fees and legal expenses if they prevail at trial. After the jury found in Ms. Diaz’s favor, her attorney requested that the trial judge require the defendant, Jiten Hotel Management, to reimburse her for legal expenses and attorney fees. The trial judge refused to require Jiten to pay all of the legal expenses and attorney fees that Ms. Diaz’s attorney requested, in part, because prior to trial Ms. Diaz decided not to settle her case and, instead, decided that she wanted to bring her case before a jury.
The First Circuit held that the trial judge could not reduce Ms. Diaz’s attorney fee award merely because she refused to settle her case prior to trial. This is an important decision because without fair awards of attorney fees and legal expenses, many people with meritorious civil rights claims would not be able to get a lawyer to represent them unless they could pay thousands of dollars of their own money. In many cases, when an employer discriminates against an employee, the employee does not have thousands of dollars to pay for an attorney. For instance, if an employer unlawfully fires an employee, that employee usually no longer has any money that he can use to pay for an attorney. So, these employees have to find an attorney who will represent them on a contingent fee basis, meaning that the attorney gets a percentage of what the employee recovers in order to pay for the time she put into the case. In relatively small cases, like Ms. Diaz’s case in which the jury awarded her only $7,650, an attorney would be unwilling to take the case unless she knew that the employer would have to pay an additional amount in attorney fees if she won.