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May 10, 2017

CPLR Article 86, the Equal Access to Justice Act, applies in cases brought against the State for alleged unlawful discrimination within the meaning of the Human Rights Law


CPLR Article 86, the Equal Access to Justice Act, applies in cases brought against the State for alleged unlawful discrimination within the meaning of the Human Rights Law
Kimmel v State of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 03689, Court of Appeals

Under the Equal Access to Justice Act [EAJA; CPLR Article 86] under certain circumstances a court may award reasonable attorneys' fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in a suit against the State.

Does the EAJA permits the award of attorneys' fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in an action against the State under the Human Rights Law for sex discrimination in employment by a state agency. The Court of Appeals concluded that it does.

A New York State Trooper [Plaintiff], sued the State of New York and the New York State Division of State Police [State] alleging that she was subjected to discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation based on her sex at work and thus suffered a hostile work environment. She sought back pay, front pay, benefits, compensatory damages, reasonable attorneys' fees, and an injunction restraining the State from continuing its discriminatory practices.

According to her complaint, and supporting exhibits, her coworkers posted lewd cartoons portraying Plaintiff naked and engaged in various sexual acts, suggested that she perform sexual acts on them and other coworkers and engaged in other harassing and hostile conduct, including a physical assault that required Plaintiff to seek emergency room treatment and doctor-ordered work leave. The Court of Appeals' decision states that "she made repeated complaints but the harassment continued. Neither her supervisors nor her Troop Commanders put a stop to her coworkers' offensive behavior. Plaintiff repeatedly sought legal assistance, but had difficulty finding an attorney to take her case."

The State, in its defense, denied "that the agency had engaged in any wrongdoing whatsoever," and asserted as a defense that "[a]ll actions taken by the State were official acts taken in the exercise of their discretion." Eventually, based on its continued defiance of court orders, the Appellate Division struck the State's answers.*

Ultimately the case went to trial. Plaintiff prevailed and received a jury award of over $700,000. The jury award included past earnings of $160,000; past lost retirement earnings of $60,000; future lost retirement earnings of $491,000; and past pain and suffering of $87,000.

When Plaintiff's current and former counsel sought attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to the EAJA, Supreme Court held that attorneys' fees and costs could not be awarded because the EAJA did not apply "where a plaintiff has recovered compensatory damages for tortious acts of the State and its employees."** The Appellate Division,  in a split decision, reversed the lower court's ruling, holding that a plain reading of the EAJA and its definition of the term "action" compelled the conclusion that the "EAJA applies to this case."

Supreme Court subsequently entered a final judgment awarding Plaintiff and intervenor attorneys' fees and expenses and the State appealed.

After an extensive exploration of the legislative history and applying the plain language, and remedial nature of the EAJA, the Court of Appeals concluded that "this civil action is eligible for an award of attorneys' fees," holding that "for cases commenced before the effective date of the 2015 amendment to the Human Rights Law, the EAJA permits the award of attorneys' fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in an action against the State under the Human Rights Law for sex discrimination in employment by a state agency."

In the words of the court: "The plain language of the statute, which is supported by the legislative history, compels the conclusion that "any civil action" encompasses cases brought under the Human Rights Law, and noted that "[i]t is not for this Court to engraft limitations onto the plain language of the statute."

Citing Orens v Novello, 99 NY2d 180, the Court of Appeals stated that "[t]his Court should be very cautious in interpreting statutes based on what it views as a better choice of words when confronted with an explicit choice made by the Legislature," noting its agreement with the Appellate Division that "we may 'not legislate under the guise of interpretation and, if application of the EAJA to this action is an unintended result of the plain language of the statute, then that is a consequence best left to the Legislature to evaluate and, if necessary, resolve.'"

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ruled that the order of the Appellate Division insofar as brought up for review, should be affirmed, with costs.

* See286 AD2d 881

** A footnote in the opinion, Footnote 5 , states, in pertinent part, "claims brought under the Human Rights Law are not tort claims," citing Margerum v City of Buffalo, 24 NY3d 721, in which the court opined: "no notice of claim requirement applies because "(h)uman rights claims are not tort actions under General Municipal Law §50-e and are not personal injury, wrongful death, or damage to personal property claims under General Municipal Law §50-i."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_03689.htm

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