It is infrequent that a losing plaintiff in a racial discrimination case is ordered to pay the legal fees incurred by the defendant, but it is an ever-present risk for plaintiffs who proceed to trial with very weak evidence of discrimination. Forcing the plaintiff to pay the fees of the defendant is rare because it is typically limited to egregious circumstances. However, a judge in the Eastern District of Virginia recently found the plaintiff’s continued pursuit of a Title VII claim was so baseless that sanctions against the plaintiff were justified.
In Farmer v. Navy Federal Credit Union, the plaintiff alleged race-based discrimination and retaliation arising out of a series of clashes that she had with a co-worker. The workplace disputes eventually led to the plaintiff being counseled by her supervisor, which culminated in an expletive-filled outburst by the plaintiff who immediately turned in her security badge and left the premises. After the employer moved to terminate the plaintiff based on her outburst and refused to allow her to return to work, she sued for racial discrimination.
After discovery was completed, and before summary judgment, the judge explained to the plaintiff’s attorney that the plaintiff was unlikely to win her case, particularly in light of the plaintiff’s contention that the employer was unreasonable and exhibited racial discrimination in not letting the plaintiff return to work after the plaintiff’s episode of improper workplace behavior. But despite having been warned by the judge that the case seemed to lack any merit, and after apparently being informed by her attorney that it was possible for the court to impose sanctions for pursuing a groundless claim, the plaintiff chose to proceed with her lawsuit.
Predictably, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff’s former employer and the employer then sought to recover the attorneys’ fees that it was forced to incur in defending itself against the employee’s baseless claims. The court granted the employer’s request for attorneys’ fees and ordered the plaintiff to pay for $34,000 in expenses the defendant incurred after the plaintiff had been warned of the weakness of her claim.
The case is a strong reminder to plaintiffs that even though a racial discrimination claim may seem like it has a good foundation at the outset, discovery may later reveal facts that undercut the claim. Plaintiff must proceed cautiously and consider the possibility that voluntary dismissal may be warranted based on newly-discovered facts. If plaintiffs give in to the temptation to press forward to trial even when the facts are against them, they may find themselves paying for that mistake.