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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Matamoros

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

June 19, 2017

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff,
v.
SERAPIA MATAMOROS, et al., Plaintiff-Intervenors,
v.
TRANS OCEAN SEAFOODS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Trans Ocean Seafoods, Inc.'s (“Trans Ocean”) Motion for Attorney's Fees. Dkt. # 180. For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Trans Ocean's motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On September 30, 2015, Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed this action against Trans Ocean alleging federal claims for sexual harassment, constructive discharge, and retaliation. Dkt. # 1 (Complaint). EEOC brought the action to seek relief for current and former employees of Trans Ocean, Serapia Matamoros, Elena Perea Olea, Celia Sanchez Perea, and Maricela Dominguez.[1]Three of those employees, Serapia Matamoros, Elena Perea Olea, Celia Sanchez Perea, joined the lawsuit as Plaintiffs-Intervenors alleging federal and state claims against Trans Ocean for sexual harassment and retaliation. Dkt. # 12 (Intervenor Complaint).

         The Court held a jury trial from March 27 to April 24, 2017. The jury reached a partial verdict. They deadlocked on the EEOC's federal sexual harassment claim seeking relief for Serapia Matamoros and Plaintiff-Intervenor Serapia Matamoros' federal and state sexual harassment claims. The Court declared a mistrial on those claims. The jury found against EEOC and Plaintiffs-Intervenors on all other claims. Now, Trans Ocean moves for attorneys' fees. Dkt. # 180. EEOC and Plaintiffs-Intervenors oppose the motion. Dkt. ## 191, 199.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Title VII permits a prevailing party to recover attorneys' fees under certain circumstances:

In any action or proceeding under this subchapter the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs, and the Commission and the United States shall be liable for costs the same as a private person.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). The threshold inquiry for the Court is whether the party seeking fees qualifies as the “prevailing party.” CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. E.E.O.C., 136 S.Ct. 1642, 1646 (2016). EEOC and Plaintiffs-Intervenors do not dispute that Trans Ocean qualifies as a “prevailing party” for the purposes of requesting attorneys' fees.

         “When a defendant is the prevailing party on a civil rights claim . . . district courts may award attorney's fees if the plaintiff's ‘claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, ' or if ‘the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.'” Id. (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978)). “An action becomes frivolous when the result appears obvious or the arguments are wholly without merit.” Galen v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 477 F.3d 652, 666 (9th Cir. 2007).

         “In determining whether this standard has been met, a district court must assess the claim at the time the complaint was filed, and must avoid post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation.” Harris v. Maricopa Cty. Superior Court, 631 F.3d 963, 976 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Tutor-Saliba Corp. v. City of Hailey, 452 F.3d 1055, 1060 (9th Cir. 2006)). “This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success.” Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422.

         Applying this standard, the Court finds that neither EEOC nor Plaintiffs-Intervenors' claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. Much of Trans Ocean's argument to the contrary is foreclosed by the principle that the Court may not engage in post hoc reasoning. For example, Trans Ocean contends that the charging parties' allegations escalated after this lawsuit commenced and seeks to substantiate this contention through a chart comparing their initial allegations versus their testimony at trial. Trans Ocean also scrutinizes EEOC's trial strategy as disingenuous, maintains that it presented inconsistent and unreliable witness testimony, and purports that this case is part of an emerging trend by the EEOC to bring frivolous lawsuits. Lastly, Trans Ocean relies on the jury's verdict against many of EEOC's and Plaintiffs-Intervenors' claims as support for the deficiency of those claims. Trans Ocean's reliance on after-the-fact, post-complaint occurrences is immaterial to the Christianburg inquiry, which requires the Court to examine the feasibility of the complaint at the time it was filed. See 434 U.S. at 422; Harris, 631 F.3d at 976.

         Trans Ocean fares no better in its other efforts to show that the EEOC's complaint was frivolous. Trans Ocean frames its primary argument under a non-exclusive three- factor framework used by the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether an action is frivolous. Dkt. # 180 (citing Quintana v. Jenne, 414 F.3d 1306, 1309 (11th Cir. 2005) (identifying three “general guidelines” for gauging the frivolousness of a claim: “(1) whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case; (2) whether the defendant offered to settle; and (3) whether the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or held a full-blown trial on the merits”)). The Ninth Circuit has not adopted the Eleventh Circuit's three-factor test for frivolousness. Moreover, in reciting ...


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