In a unanimous opinion by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, the Supreme Court today limits the circumstances under which a court can assess costs against an unsuccessful plaintiff in an action alleging a violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The court decides in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District that a FEHA statute provides an exception to the general rule that a prevailing party is entitled to recover costs. According to the court, the Legislature intended an asymmetrical standard — “a prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily receive his or her costs and attorney fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust,” but “[a] prevailing defendant . . . should not be awarded fees and costs unless the court finds the action was objectively without foundation when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.”
Admitting that it “spoke too broadly” in a 1998 opinion, the Supreme Court disapproves dictum in that earlier decision. In Williams, the court reverses the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Two, and it also disapproves three Court of Appeal opinions — a 2003 Sixth District Court of Appeal opinion, a 2005 First District, Division Two, opinion, and a 2013 Second District, Division Three, opinion. The Supreme Court concludes that the Second District, Division Seven, got it right in a 1992 opinion.