A law firm was awarded more than $1 in attorneys’ fees after a jury awarded its client $8.7 million in an employment termination case. The plaintiff, a former Rite Aid store manager, was wrongfully terminated and faced discrimination after he was injured in a store robbery.
Plaintiff Robert Leggins began working for Rite Aid in 1985 and filed suit in 2013. The suit stemmed from workplace discrimination that Leggins alleged started after he was injured in the store robbery. Leggins also alleged that since the arrival of a new district manager, he had experienced discrimination based on both his race and disability.
Leggins was working in the Rite Aid store he was tasked with running one night in 2007 when the robbery occurred. He was attacked during the robbery and suffered a neck injury that led to several surgeries. Leggins alleged that despite his injury, his supervisors forced him to do hard manual labor and mocked him for his injury. At times, Rite Aid management even implied he was faking it to shirk his work duties.
Leggins asked the new Rite Aid district manager for a transfer to a smaller store in a better neighborhood so he could work around his hurt neck, but the manager told him that “all black people do is complain.” Rite Aid responded that the decision to fire Leggins was the culmination of his failure to perform his job adequately for the previous two years. Rite Aid’s motion for summary judgment called Leggins’ allegations about race and disability discrimination “his own rank speculation.”
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Leggins brought suit in 2013 and the jury agreed with him that the company harassed and punished him for his injury. The jury did not find, however, that the company or its managers discriminated against Leggins for his race. The jury awarded Leggins $3.7 million for lost wages and other losses plus an additional $5 million in punitive damages for his claims of discrimination and wrongful termination.
Earlier this summer, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael L. Stern denied two Rite Aid post-trial motions seeking to slash or vacate the verdict. Despite standing firm on his decision in the case, Stern said it was “vigorously contested with good attorneys on both sides” with numerous witnesses.
According to the state of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), a court has the discretion to award to the prevailing party reasonable attorneys' fees and costs in these situations. Judge Stern said while the case appeared to be a “garden variety” employment matter, the legal fight surrounding it certainly was not.
Leggins’ attorney, Carney Shegerian said:
"Realistically, how many plaintiffs' attorneys (let alone plaintiffs) can afford the raw costs, overhead staffing, and firm costs to take a case like this – with its difficult facts – to trial against a global law firm such as Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, which used an army of attorneys at trial, numerous additional attorneys throughout litigation, and a plethora of paralegals, assistants, staff, and other personnel who were present both inside and outside the courtroom? The only reason attorneys would risk their money and time on such a venture, while declining other lucrative matters, would be the expectation that, if they prevail and vindicate critical statutory rights against a large employer, they will be fully compensated for the massive risk undertaken, with an enhancement for the sheer difficulties of a case like this and the superior results obtained."
Rite Aid attorneys argued the $500 and $700 per hour numbers Leggins’ attorneys sought were unreasonable. Counsel for Rite Aid also tried pointing out that Leggins’ case is just a “run of the mill” termination case not unique in its defense. Judge Stern disagreed and acknowledged the rates could be due to inflation, but are in no way “off the charts.”