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ROMPOLA v. LEHIGH VALLEY HOSPITAL

July 6, 2004.

EVA G. ROMPOLA, Plaintiff,
v.
LEHIGH VALLEY HOSPITAL, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BERLE M. SCHILLER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Eva Rompola brought suit against her former employer, Defendant Lehigh Valley Hospital, for sex, national origin, and age discrimination and retaliatory discharge in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 629. Defendant moved for summary judgment on all of the claims in Plaintiff's complaint. Subsequently, Plaintiff voluntarily withdrew all claims in her complaint except for her retaliatory discharge claims under Title VII and the ADEA. Thereafter, this Court granted summary judgment on the retaliation claims in favor of Defendant. Presently before the Court is Defendant's petition for costs and fees pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), and the ADEA, 29 U.S.C. § 626(b). For the reasons set forth below, I deny Defendant's petition.

I. BACKGROUND

  Plaintiff is a Hungarian-born registered alien who was fifty-one years of age when the events at issue occurred.*fn1 After Defendant hired her as an emergency room nurse, Plaintiff's employment record was littered with disciplinary actions and complaints regarding her performance and treatment of patients. Perceiving these disciplinary actions to be discrimination based on sex, national origin, and age, Plaintiff retained an attorney who wrote a letter to Defendant on her behalf and filed an EEOC complaint. After several months and other patient-related incidents, Defendant conducted an investigation into the most recent incidents on Plaintiff's employment record and ultimately terminated her. Plaintiff brought suit in this Court alleging sex, national origin, and age discrimination as well as retaliatory discharge.

  Copious discovery was taken and Defendants thereafter filed a summary judgment motion, which contained volumes of records on Plaintiff's employment history. After Defendant filed its summary judgment motion on all counts, Plaintiff withdrew her discrimination claims and pursued only the retaliatory discharge claim. This Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant after determining that Plaintiff could not prove the causal link between her termination and her protected activity. Defendant, as the prevailing party, now moves the Court to award attorneys' fees and costs under Title VII and the ADEA.

  II. STANDARD FOR AWARD OF ATTORNEYS' FEES AND OTHER COSTS

  A. Award of Attorneys' Fees and Other Costs to Prevailing Defendants under Title VII

  Under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), reasonable attorneys' fees and other costs may be granted in the district court's discretion to a prevailing defendant "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978); see also EEOC v. L.B. Foster, 123 F.3d 746, 751 (3d Cir. 1997). Similarly, a district court may award fees when, after it becomes clear that the claims are frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, plaintiff continues to litigate. Id. at 422. "`Frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,' in this context, implies `groundless . . . rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case." L.B. Foster, 123 F.3d at 751 (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 412).

  While a plaintiff's subjective bad faith is not a prerequisite for an award of fees under Title VII, implicit in the determination is "that plaintiff knew or should have known the legal or evidentiary deficiencies of his claim." Brown v. Borough of Chambersburg, 903 F.2d 274, 277 (3d Cir. 1990); cf. Barnes Found. v. Township of Lower Merion, 242 F.3d 151, 156 (3d Cir. 2001) (stating that "relevant standard is objective"). Because fees under Title VII are assessed only against the losing party and not the losing party's attorney, Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 504 (3d Cir. 1991), many courts will not award fees where plaintiff cannot be said to be personally accountable for the frivolous nature of her case. Solomen v. Redwood Advisory Co., 223 F. Supp.2d 681, 688 (E.D. Pa. 2002); Hutter v. Southeastern Pa. Transit Auth., Civ. A. No. 99-4879, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9041, at *10, 2000 WL 873319, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 23, 2000); Murray v. Southeastern Pa. Transit Auth., Civ. A. No. 96-7971, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18039, at *5-6, 1998 WL 778325, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 9, 1998); see also Hicks v. Arthur, 891 F. Supp. 213, 215 (E.D. Pa. 1995), aff'd, 91 F.3d 123 (3d Cir. 1996). "Typically, a discharged plaintiff genuinely believes he has been wronged but must depend on his attorney to assess whether there is a legally cognizable or supportable claim." Murray, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18039, at *5.

  Moreover, the Third Circuit has cautioned that awards of "attorney's fees [to a prevailing Title VII defendants] are not routine, but are to be only sparingly awarded." L.B. Foster, 123 F.3d at 751 (citing Quiroga, 934 F.2d at 503). In order to determine whether to award a prevailing Title VII defendant attorneys' fees, a court must look at "several factors including `(1) whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case; (2) whether the defendant offered to settle; . . . (3) whether the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or held a full-blown trial on the merits'"; (4) "whether the issue was one of first impression;" and (5) "whether there was a real threat of injury to the plaintiff." Id. (discussing first three factors (citations omitted)); see also Barnes Found., 242 F.3d at 158 (discussing additional factors). These factors are not exclusive; rather, they are guideposts to aid in determining on a case-by-case basis whether fees should be awarded. L.B. Foster, 123 F.3d at 751.

  The Supreme Court has cautioned that "it is important that a . . . court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation." Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22. Furthermore, several courts have specifically held that in cases, such as this one, where the defendant prevails on its summary judgment motion, "the grant of summary judgment in defendant's favor does not necessarily mean the action was frivolous for awarding attorney's fees" and that "the standard for finding frivolity or a lack of foundation therefore must require something beyond that which is required for granting . . . a motion for summary judgment." Solomen, 223 F. Supp.2d at 684 (citations omitted); see also Whiteland Woods v. Township of West Whiteland, Civ. A. No. 96-8086, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12210, at *17, 2001 WL 936490, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 14, 2001); Tuthill v. Consol. Rail Corp., Civ. A. No. 96-6868, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8863, at *11-12, 1998 WL 321245, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 18, 1998); Izquierdo v. Sills, Civ. A. No. 97-495, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20820, at *8, 1999 WL 142735, at *2-3 (D. Del. Dec. 21, 1999); cf. Khan v. Gallitano, 180 F.3d 829, 837 (7th Cir. 1999) ("There is a significant difference between making a weak argument with little chance of success. . . . and making a frivolous argument with no chance of success. . . . It is only the latter that permits defendants to recover attorney's fees."). In order to determine whether fees should be awarded after the grant of a summary judgment motion, courts consider whether careful and detailed consideration was needed in order to grant summary judgment and whether there was at least some basis in law for plaintiff's claims. Tuthill, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8863, at *11-12 (E.D. Pa. June 18, 1998) ("When claims have been disposed of by a motion for summary judgment after `careful consideration' by the court, the action most likely was not frivolous or vexatious." (quoting Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 16 (1980))); Whiteland Woods, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12210, at *17 (quoting Tuthill); Izquierdo, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20820, at *8, 10 (citing Tuthill and holding plaintiff's claims were not frivolous as "[d]etailed fact, specific inquiries into the various claims was needed")).

  B. Award of Attorneys' Fees and Other Costs to Prevailing Defendants under ADEA

  The standard for an award of attorneys' fees and other costs to prevailing defendants under the ADEA is not as well established as the standard under Title VII. However, "each circuit which has addressed this issue has found that a district court may award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant if the defendant establishes that the plaintiff litigated in bad faith." Cesaro v. Thompson Publ'g Group, 20 F. Supp.2d 725, 726 (D.N.J. 1998) (citing Turlington v. Atlanta Gas Light Co., 135 F.3d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1998) and discussing several circuit courts' decisions on point). Recently, in a footnote to a published opinion, the Third Circuit noted that it would be similarly inclined to find that a showing of bad faith is required to award prevailing defendants attorneys' fees under the ADEA. Wastak v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, 333 ...


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