(SACRAMENTO, CA) – The Equal Access to Justice Act, authored by Assemblymember Sandré R. Swanson (D-Alameda), Chair of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, passed the Assembly today. The bill will increase low-wage workers’ access to the justice system after a recent court decision, Chavez v. City of Los Angeles (2010) 47 Cal.4th 970, effectively discouraged low-wage workers from making employment discrimination claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
“Our laws should not foster a system that only vindicates the rights of high-wage plaintiffs. California’s existing statutory and case law create a system that discourages competent attorneys from taking FEHA claims from low-wage workers because of a risk that they will be unable to recover attorney’s fees,” explained Swanson.
In most other areas of law, a successful plaintiff is entitled to recover attorney fees. However, after the Chavez decision, where a FEHA claim is at issue, trial courts can deny attorney fees to a successful plaintiff if they recover less than $25,000.
“The Chavez ruling has the unfortunate effect of closing the courthouse doors to employees in low-wage industries who have suffered discrimination or retaliation but who are unable to establish economic damages sufficient for an attorney to take their case,” said Swanson.
Swanson further explained that he was prompted to author the bill after learning of a UCLA-RAND study, which highlighted the difficulties that low-wage workers have in hiring attorneys for their FEHA claims.
“Civil rights enforcement under FEHA should not depend on a wage and damage calculation. Oftentimes, a modest financial award is all that is needed to vindicate an important legal right. A small award may involve a big principle of justice that applies to a large group of people. Discouraging plaintiffs from pursuing their rightful claims runs contrary to our entire justice system,” concluded Assemblymember Swanson.
Assemblymember Mike Feuer underscored the need for Swanson’s bill. “California is in danger of having a two-tier system of judgment for victims of discrimination. The workers whose rights are at stake in this bill are workers who work at car washes, people who clean buildings and bathrooms – workers who are low-wage workers. But notwithstanding that low wage, those workers are entitled to access the courts. In the absence of this legislation, those workers will not have access to a lawyer because a lawyer will be unwilling to take on their case. This leaves low-wage workers without a right to a hearing. Swanson’s bill moves us in the direction of leveling the playing field, which is currently way off balance.”
AB 559 is sponsored by the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA). Swanson authored a similar solution last year in AB 2773, which was ultimately vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger after garnering strong bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature. CELA and Assemblymember Swanson are hopeful that the more thoughtful Governor Brown appreciates the need for this access to justice bill. AB 559 now moves to the Senate.