Tuesday, December 18, 2012

California Supreme Court: Two-Way Fee-Shifting Statute for Accessibility Cases Not Preempted by the ADA

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion in Jankey v. Lee.  Jankey, who uses a wheelchair, brought a case in state court and alleged that Lee's grocery store was inaccessible because it had a small step in front.  Jankey raised claims under both the public accommodations provisions of the ADA and state law, though the state law imposed the same substantive standards of liability as does the ADA.  The trial court granted summary judgment to Lee.  Although the grocery store did, in fact, have a small step at the front, the court concluded that removal of that step would not be readily achievable.  As a result, Lee did not violate the ADA or the parallel state laws.  Lee then moved for an award of attorneys' fees under Section 55 of California's Civil Code, which provides that the prevailing party -- plaintiff or defendant -- is entitled to fees in injunctive actions alleging inaccessible public accommodations.  Jankey argued that this provision was preempted by the ADA's attorneys' fees provision -- under which prevailing defendants are entitled to fees only if the plaintiff's case satisfies the Christiansburg Garment standard of being "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation."  The trial court nonetheless concluded that Section 55 mandated an award of fees to a prevailing defendant.  Although it did not find Jankey's claims to be frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, it granted the motion for attorneys' fees.  The appellate court affirmed, as did the Supreme Court in yesterday's decision.

The California Supreme Court concluded that, under the plain text of Section 55, attorneys' fees are not discretionary.  Rather, any prevailing party -- plaintiff or defendant -- in a Section 55 action is entitled to fees.

The court then rejected Jankey's preemption argument.  It first interpreted the ADA's savings clause for more disability-protective state laws as foreclosing any conflict or obstacle preemption challenge to Section 55.  The ADA's savings clause provides that "[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to invalidate or limit the remedies, rights, and procedures of any * * * law of any State or political subdivision of any State or jurisdiction that provides greater or equal protection for the rights of individuals with disabilities than are afforded by this chapter."  The court read this clause as saving from preemption any state law that at least in part affords people with disabilities greater protection than does the ADA -- even if other aspects of the state law, or even the state law taken as a whole, provide less protection to people with disabilities.  Because Section 55 provides broader protection than the ADA's public accommodations title in one respect -- the state law empowers people with disabilities to sue when they are "potentially aggrieved" by a defendant's violations, while federal law requires an individual with a disability to show that she is "about to be subjected to" discrimination -- the court saw no "need to parse every aspect of [the] state law to determine whether, on balance, the state law is equally or more advantageous as a whole."

Notwithstanding this conclusion, the court then examined the questions of conflict and obstacle preemption directly.  The court concluded that -- even if the plaintiff's state-law and ADA claims so completely overlapped that the state-law claim required no additional work to defend -- the award of full attorneys' fees to the prevailing defendant was not preempted:  "Lee would have been entitled to the same fees whether or not Jankey pleaded an ADA claim; the pleading of an ADA claim was neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of the fee award. The fee award here is not in any meaningful sense for or on account of having to defend against an ADA claim, but instead a consequence of Jankey‟s purely voluntary decision to seek additional state remedies."  Because "[p]laintiffs can always sue under the ADA alone, safe in the knowledge that even if they lose, defense fees will be available only in accordance with Christiansburg," the court concluded that awarding attorneys' fees to defendants more broadly in cases in which plaintiffs voluntarily choose to add a state-law claim neither conflicted with the ADA nor posed an obstacle to the accomplishment of its purposes.

Four years ago, the Ninth Circuit held that two-way fee-shifting under Section 55 was preempted by the ADA.  I doubt, therefore, that this is the last we'll hear of this issue.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Isn't the obvious solution for plaintiffs who wish to assert claims under both the ADA and Section 55 to bring those claims in a federal court since 1) it can exercise federal question jurisdiction over the ADA claim and supplemental jurisdiction over the section 55 claim, and, 2) should the claims fail, it mus follow the binding authority in the ninth circuit of Hubbard?

3:15 PM  

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