Courts may consider a plaintiff’s status as an attorney in awarding a defendant attorneys’ fees due to the frivolous nature of a plaintiff’s claims

July 31, 2012 | Professional Liability | Complex Torts & Product Liability | Insurance Coverage

Taylor v. Harbour Pointe Homeowners Association, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 16216 (2d Cir. Aug. 2, 2012)

While attorneys’ fees are more regularly awarded to prevailing plaintiffs under various federal anti-discrimination statutes, prevailing defendants in such cases are not typically awarded attorneys’ fees unless they can demonstrate that the plaintiff’s claims were “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.”

In a recent decision, the Second Circuit awarded attorneys’ fees to defendants in a failure to accommodate claim under the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §3601 et seq. Plaintiff, a licensed attorney, alleged she was disabled as a result of depression and that the homeowners’ association for her private community had engaged in discriminatory housing practices by clearing away accumulated clutter from her patio.

Plaintiff initially filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New York State Division of Human Rights. The Division of Human Rights issued a Determination and Order After Investigation, concluding that there was no probable cause to support a claim of housing discrimination, that there was no evidence to support a finding that plaintiff was disabled, that plaintiff’s messy patio was related to any disability, or that plaintiff had requested any accommodation from the homeowners’ association. The Department of Housing and Urban Development affirmed the decision.

Nevertheless, plaintiff then pursued her failure to accommodate claim, based upon the same set of allegations, in an action brought in federal district court. While dismissing plaintiff’s claims, the district court declined to award defendants attorneys’ fees, holding that plaintiff’s claims, while meritless, were not “entirely unreasonable and without foundation.”

The Second Circuit reversed. The Court noted that, while the administrative determinations did not have a preclusive effect on plaintiff’s ability to bring a claim in federal court, “the full extent of legal and factual shortcomings laid bare in the administrative proceedings should have been a powerful clue to [plaintiff], a licensed attorney, that her case had no merit.” Accordingly, the Second Circuit held that plaintiff’s claims were “manifestly without merit” and awarded attorneys’ fees to the defendants.

Practice Note: Attorney-litigants may be more likely than non-attorney litigants to face sanctions, including an award of attorneys’ fees to their opponent, if they insist on pursuing patently meritless claims or engaging in frivolous conduct. Attorneys whose practice includes the representation of other attorneys should caution their clients to make an objective evaluation of the merits of their claims and refrain from pursuing a course of action which a Court may find to be frivolous.

Reprinted with permission from the August 2012 lpl eadvisory – ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer’s Professional Liability.  All rights reserved.

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