Trotta v. Cajun Conti LLC et al
ORDER & REASONS denying 69 Motion for Attorney Fees. Signed by Judge Sarah S. Vance on 3/1/2017. (mmm)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
CAJUN CONTI, LLC, ET AL.
SECTION “R” (2)
ORDER AND REASONS
Defendants Cajun Conti, LLC and Cajun Bourbon, LLC move the Court
for an award of attorneys’ fees incurred by defendants while litigating the
Title VII retaliation claim brought by plaintiff Joseph Trotta. 1 For the
following reasons, the Court denies defendants’ motion.
Trotta worked at two restaurants owned by defendants in New Orleans,
Louisiana. 2 On August 3, 2014, Trotta was notified that his employment with
defendants was terminated.3 On April 14, 2015, Trotta filed suit alleging that
R. Doc. 69.
The facts as described here are from the Court’s January 13,
2017 Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment, R. Doc.
Id. at 2
he was fired as retaliation for protected activity in violation of Title VII of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.
More specifically, Trotta alleged that he was fired for giving a
statement to the EEOC regarding defendants’ termination of another
employee, Arthur Alexander. 4
Defendants filed a motion for summary
judgment, which the Court granted because Trotta failed to establish a prima
facie case of retaliation.
Defendants now move the Court for an order of attorneys’ fees in the
amount of $60,912.90 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(k). Trotta filed a
response in opposition. 5
It is the general rule in the United States that in the absence of
legislation providing otherwise, litigants are liable for their own attorney’s
fees. See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, 434 U.S. 412, 415 (1978) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Co. v.
Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975)). Congress has, however, provided
limited exceptions to this rule under certain statutes protecting particular
Id. at 3.
R. Doc. 71.
federal rights. See id. Some of these statutes make fee awards mandatory
for a prevailing plaintiff. Some make fee awards permissive but limit the
parties who can recover to prevailing plaintiffs. See id. at 415-16. Many of
these statutes, however, provide the district court with a great deal of
flexibility and discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to either a prevailing
plaintiff or a prevailing defendant. Section 706(k) of the 1964 Civil Rights
Act falls squarely within this last category. Section 706(k) provides:
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 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).
Under § 706(k), a prevailing plaintiff is to be awarded attorney’s fees
in all but special circumstances.
See Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 417.
However, the policy considerations that support granting fees to a prevailing
plaintiff are not present when there is a prevailing defendant. As such, a
district court may grant a prevailing defendant attorney’s fees only when the
court in its discretion finds that plaintiff’s action was “frivolous,
unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in bad faith.”
Id. at 421; see also Little v. S. Elec. Steel Co., 595 F.2d 998, 1002-03 (5th Cir.
The Supreme Court emphasized that district courts need not conclude
that simply because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, her action must
have been unreasonable or without foundation. See Christiansburg, 434 U.S.
at 421-22. The Supreme Court cautioned district courts against engaging in
that type of “hindsight logic,” because it could discourage all but the most
airtight of claims and undercut the efforts of Congress to promote vigorous
enforcement of the provisions of Title VII. Id.
Defendants argue that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees because
Trotta’s claims were frivolous, and they base their frivolousness argument
entirely on that Trotta was unable to establish a prima facie case.6 The
argument offered by defendants asks the Court to engage in precisely the
type of post hoc reasoning the Supreme Court cautioned against in
Christiansburg. Christiansburg makes clear that a district court must not
rely solely on the ultimate outcome of the ligation as the standard for whether
attorney’s fees should be awarded. Id. at 421 (citing Carrion v. Yeshiva
University, 535 F.2d 722 (2d Cir. 1976) (stating that awards of attorney’s fees
should not be granted to a prevailing defendant routinely or simply because
R. Doc. 69-1 at 3.
he succeeds)); see also Hidden Oaks, Ltd. v. City of Austin, 138 F.3d 1036,
1053 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 15-16 (1980) (“The
fact that the Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ suit is not in itself a sufficient
justification for the fee award.”)).
Although Trotta was ultimately unsuccessful in defeating summary
judgment, there is little in the record that shows that his claims were
unreasonable, without foundation, frivolous, or vexatious when filed. Trotta
attempted to support his retaliation claims with evidence obtained during
discovery. This included testimony regarding his supervisors’ use of racial
slurs, hostile treatment, and constant threats of termination. 7 Further, it is
undisputed that Trotta engaged in protected activity when he gave a
statement to the EEOC, and was fired less than six weeks later.
Defendants note that Trotta testified that he had no evidence that
defendants were aware that he made a statement to the EEOC until after they
terminated him. 8 The Court relied on this in granting defendants summary
judgment, as courts in this circuit require plaintiffs with retaliation claims to
show at least some evidence that the decisionmakers responsible for the
adverse action had knowledge of the plaintiff’s protected activity in order to
R. Doc. 57-5 at 25, 28.
R. Doc. 57-6 at 45.
prove the causation prong of the prima facie case. See, e.g., Manning v.
Chevron Chem. Co., LLC, 332 F. 3d 874, 883 (5th Cir. 2003). But plaintiff
did not have evidence of this knowledge does not make his claim frivolous,
especially since, in certain situations, this knowledge (and therefore
causation) can be inferred from the temporal proximity of the protected
activity and the adverse action. See Richard v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 233
F. App’x 334, 338 (5th Cir. 2007) (“This court allows, however, for an
inference of causation to be drawn where the adverse employment action
occurs in close temporal proximity to the protected conduct.”) (citing Evans
v. City of Houston, 246 F.3d 344, 354 (5th Cir. 2001)). Trotta advanced this
argument in opposition to summary judgment; that it failed is not indicative
that his claim was frivolous.
As the Supreme Court stated in Christiansburg, “[n]o matter how
honest one’s belief that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter
how meritorious one’s claim may appear at the outset, the course of litigation
is rarely predictable.” 434 U.S. at 422. In this case, Trotta was simply unable
to support his claims with evidence sufficient to defeat summary judgment.
For the Court to assess attorneys’ fees against Trotta simply because he
proved unsuccessful would add substantially to the risks of litigation while
also undercutting the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous
enforcement of Title VII. Accordingly, defendants’ motion for attorneys’ fees
For the foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES defendants’ motion for
New Orleans, Louisiana, this _____ day of March, 2017.
SARAH S. VANCE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?