NY Court of Appeals: Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) Permits Award of Attorney Fees to Prevailing Plaintiffs in Actions Against NY State Under the NYS Human Rights Law For Sex Discrimination in Employment By a State Agency

In Kimmel v. State, No. 36, 2017 WL 1838940 (N.Y. May 9, 2017), the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) held that the state Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), codified at CPLR Article 86, “permits the award of attorneys’ fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in an action against the State under the [New York State] Human Rights Law for sex discrimination in employment by a state agency.”

In this litigation (commenced in 1995), plaintiff, a New York State Trooper, alleged (among other things) that

[C]oworkers posted lewd cartoons portraying plaintiff naked and engaged in various sexual acts, suggested that plaintiff perform sexual acts on them and other coworkers and engaged in other harassing and hostile conduct, including a physical assault on plaintiff, which required emergency room treatment and doctor-ordered work leave.

Throughout the course of plaintiff’s 14–year tenure, she made repeated complaints. In 1982, plaintiff made a sexual harassment claim under Article 9 of the New York State Police Administrative Manual, but the harassment continued. When she was assaulted by a coworker in 1993, plaintiff requested a formal hearing, but was dissuaded from moving forward when her request to have a private attorney present was denied and her union representative suggested that she would not receive a fair hearing. Despite plaintiff’s efforts, neither her supervisors nor her Troop Commanders put a stop to her coworkers’ offensive behavior.

A jury eventually awarded plaintiff $700,000 in damages (including past earnings, past lost retirement earnings, future lost retirement earnings, and past pain and suffering).

Plaintiff’s counsel then sought attorneys’ fees and costs under the EAJA.

That statute provides, in relevant part:

… except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party, other than the state, fees and other expenses incurred by such party in any civil action brought against the state, unless the court finds that the position of the state was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust. [CPLR § 8601(a)]

The Supreme Court (New York’s lowest court of general jurisdiction) “held that attorneys’ fees and costs could not be awarded in this action 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 reversed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Specifically, after reviewing the EAJA’s plain language and legislative history, the Court ultimately concluded that the statute did indeed provide for attorney fees in this case:

In sum, the plain language, legislative history and remedial nature of the EAJA together demonstrate that this civil action is eligible for an award of attorneys’ fees. We hold that for cases commenced before the effective date of the 2015 amendment to the Human Rights Law [permitting an award of attorney fees in cases of, inter alia, sex discrimination in employment], 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 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. It is not for this Court to engraft limitations onto the plain language of the statute. Indeed, “[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” (Matter of Orens v. Novello, 99 N.Y.2d 180, 190 [2002] ). We agree 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”[.]

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