Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ninth Circuit Issues Important Attorneys' Fees Decision

In an opinion filed on Friday in the case of Hubbard v. SoBreck, LLC, the Ninth Circuit resolved a very significant attorneys' fees question. The plaintiffs had filed suit under the ADA and the California Disabled Persons Act to challenge various barriers to accesibility at the defendants' restaurant. The parties settled many of the plaintiffs' claims before trial, and the plaintiffs voluntarily abandoned others, so the trial focused on only a few of plaintiffs' claims of inaccesibility. The district court, after a bench trial, ruled for the defendant on those claims. The defendants then moved for attorneys' fees under the ADA and the CDPA. The district court ruled that the defendants could not recover under the ADA -- which authorizes an award of fees to prevailing defendants only in cases where the plaintiff's claim was frivolous -- but could recover under the CDPA -- which the district court interpreted as authorizing an award of fees to any prevailing defendant.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit did not address whether the district court's interpretation of the state-law attorneys' fees provision was correct. The court of appeals instead held that, "to the extent that Section 55 does authorize the award of fees to a prevailing defendant on nonfrivolous CDPA state claims that parallel nonfrivolous ADA claims, the ADA preempts Section 55 of the CDPA." This is likely to be a very significant ruling, because it takes away a tool that businesses can use to deter nonfrivolous ADA acessibility suits.

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