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Kutska v. California State College

filed: July 15, 1977.



Gibbons and Rosenn, Circuit Judges, and Hannum,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Gibbons

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.

We here consider the motion by the defendants-appellees, California State College, Department of Education, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, George H. Roadman, President, Thomas Howard, Vice President, and Philip Y. Coleman, Dean of Arts and Sciences, for the award of counsel fees. The plaintiff, Nicholas Kutska, brought suit in the United States District Court, charging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The gravamen of the charge was that he was denied tenure because of his Slavic national origin. The Attorney General of Pennsylvania appeared for the defendants and successfully defended the case in the District Court. Mr. Kutska appealed the dismissal of his suit, and the Attorney General filed a brief for the appellees. This court affirmed the dismissal of the Complaint by a judgment order on February 23, 1977. Thereafter, the Attorney General moved for an award of counsel fees to be paid to the Commonwealth. He relied on § 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.§ 2000e-5(k), which 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.

Mr. Kutska, who prosecuted his appeal pro se, made no response to the motion for an award of counsel fees. Research by the panel to whom the motion was assigned found no legislative history or cases addressing the questions which it raised.There is no question of the authority of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to appear and defend, not only on behalf of the College, a division of the Commonwealth government, but also on behalf of the individual state officer defendants. 71 P.S. § 292(a), (b). See Vecchione v. Wohlgemuth, 558 F.2d 150 (3d Cir. 1977). But no law has been called to our attention which would oblige the individual defendants to reimburse the Commonwealth for the legal services so provided. Since § 706(k) did not explicitly deal with the situation in which a state governmental agency furnished legal services, and explicitly negated the award of attorney's fees to the United States or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the panel concluded that it would be appropriate to solicit the views of amici curiae. Thus we requested briefing on the motion by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and by Daniel Segal, Esq. and Ralph L. Spritzer, Esq., of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The amici addressed two questions: (1) the eligibility of a State to recover under § 706(k), and (2) if recovery is proper, the standards for the exercise of the court's discretion in making the award.


When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted the fee provision was of no relevance to State governments, since the substantive prohibitions on employment discrimination in that Act did not apply to the States. They, like the United States, were excluded from the definition of "employer." They could not be parties to Title VII actions. Pub. L. 88-352, § 701(b), 78 Stat. 253. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, Pub. L. 92-261, § 2, deleted the exclusion of State governments from the definition of "employer" in Title VII. The 1972 Act made no change, however, in the language of § 706(k). Nor, during consideration of the 1972 Act in either House of Congress, was there any discussion of the potential effect of the attorney's fee provision on prevailing state defendants. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456, 49 L. Ed. 2d 614, 96 S. Ct. 2666 (1976), without extended discussion, indicates that § 706(k) permits the award of counsel fees against state governments. Thus clearly the section applies to those governments, and there is no indication that it should be given anything but its literal meaning that they can collect attorneys fees when they are the prevailing party. Strict literalism, perhaps, might require that they be reimbursed for fees incurred only in the defense of the state's own interest as a party, and not for those incurred in the defense of State officers joined in a Title VII action. We think, however, that at least in this case there is no reason to make so fine a distinction. The record discloses that a single defense was presented, and no separate time or effort appears to have been expended in defense of the individual officers as distinct from the College.

Reinforcing our conclusion that Congress intended the states to have the benefits as well as the detriments of § 706(k) are the Senate and House Reports on the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, P.L. 94-559, 90 Stat. 2641, which suggest that Congress in 1976 assumed that § 706(k) applied to state governments. See H.R. Rep. No. 94-1558, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. at 1, 7 (1976); S. Rep. No. 94-1011, 94th Cong. 2d Sess. 1 (1976). The 1976 Act also expressly excludes the federal government from its benefits. Thus, Congress was conscious of the distinction between the federal government and the states for purposes of recovery of attorney's fees.


Section 706(k) vests the court with discretion to award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party. With respect to private prevailing parties, the standard for awarding such fees to successful defendants is quite different from those for awarding to successful plaintiffs. "Private parties who commence such litigation are 'private attorneys general' vindicating a policy to which Congress gave the highest priority . . ." Carrion v. Yeshiva University, 535 F.2d 722, 727 (2d Cir. 1976), quoting Fort v. White, 530 F.2d 1113, 1117-1118 (2d Cir. 1976). Given the role of private suits in "accomplishing the desired public objective of eradicating discrimination," United States Steel Corp. v. United States, 519 F.2d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 1975), the encouragement to pursue one's rights provided by a liberally administered attorney's fee provision is crucial to Title VII's effective operation. Accordingly, it is the general rather than the exceptional practice to award attorney's fees to prevailing plaintiffs. Denial of fees to prevailing plaintiffs can be justified only by special circumstances. United States Steel Corp. v. United States, supra, 519 F.2d at 363; Evans v. Sheraton Park Hotel, 164 U.S. App. D.C. 86, 503 F.2d 177 (1974); Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974); Schaeffer v. San Diego Yellow Cabs, Inc., 462 F.2d 1002 (9th Cir. 1972). See also Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, 390 U.S. 400, 19 L. Ed. 2d 1263, 88 S. Ct. 964 (1968).

The situation with respect to a prevailing private defendant is markedly different. "A prevailing defendant seeking an attorney's fee [under Title VII] does not appear before the court cloaked in a mantle of public interest." United States Steel Corp. v. United States, supra, 519 F.2d at 364. A general practice of awarding attorney's fees to prevailing defendants would work to defeat the goal of effective enforcement of Title VII. As this Court has noted "[a] routine allowance of attorney's fees to successful defendants in discrimination suits might effectively discourage suits in all but the clearest cases and inhibit earnest advocacy on undecided issues." Id. at 364-365. An award of attorney's fees to a prevailing private defendant is appropriate, therefore, only when certain extraordinary indicia - "vexatiousness, bad faith, abusive conduct, or an attempt to harass or embarrass" - characterize the plaintiff's suit. Id. at 364; see also EEOC v. Christiansburg Garment Co., 550 F.2d 949, 45 U.S.L.W. 2352 (4th Cir. 1977), cert. granted, 432 U.S. 905, 97 S. Ct. 2948, 53 L. Ed. 2d 1077 (1977); Paddison v. Fidelity Bank, 60 F.R.D. 695 (E.D. Pa. 1973); Carrion v. Yeshiva University, 535 F.2d 722, 727 (2d Cir. 1976).

One question posed by the Attorney General's motion is whether there is any reason to be any less exacting in considering a request for attorney's fees by a State defendant which prevails in a Title VII suit. We see no reason for the application of any different standard. Routine allowance of attorney's fees to prevailing State defendants would have the same potential for discouraging plaintiffs as in cases of private employers. Today state government employees comprise a very substantial percentage of the total work force, and it would be arbitrary, to say the least, to construe § 706(k) as applicable to those employees in a manner different from the rest of the work force. Indeed there are two reasons why, in the exercise of discretion in awarding fees to states in Title VII cases, the courts should be particularly demanding. First, the resources of a State defendant, since the State has taxing powers, are far in excess of those of the typical private defendant. States generally employ salaried attorneys paid out of tax revenues. Thus it will generally be less burdensome for a State to bear its own attorney's fees than in the case of a private defendant. We have heretofore observed that "ability to pay may enter into a court's decision whether to award counsel fees." United States Steel Corp. v. United States, supra, 519 F.2d at 364 n. 24. By a parity of reasoning it seems appropriate to take into account the prevailing state defendant's ability to bear the expense. Second, discrimination by government, especially damaging because of the pervasive role that government plays in society, requires particular attention from the courts. As the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare noted in its report on the bill that became the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972:

The exclusion of minorities from effective participation in the bureaucracy not only promotes ignorance of minority problems in that particular community, but also creates mistrust, alienation, and all too ...

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