The Houston Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Apache Corporation v. Cathryn C. Davis, No. 14-17-00306-CV and upheld a jury award of $150,000 to Davis on an EEOC age discrimination and retaliation suit. The Court, after a $70,000 reduction, upheld an award of attorneys’ fees of almost $700,000.
Apache raises two important legal issues: (1) whether an EEOC plaintiff who files an age discrimination suit, but submits evidence that could liberally be interpreted as containing evidence of gender discrimination, exhausted administrative remedies giving the court jurisdiction to decide a jury issues related to the gender claim; and (2) whether sufficient evidence justified the attorney fee award.
In December 2012, Davis filed an internal complaint alleging age and gender discrimination. Apache terminated Davis approximately seven weeks later, contending that Davis failed to comply with workplace policies. Davis filed a claim with the EEOC, checking the boxes for retaliation and age—not gender. Davis then filed suit asserting claims for age discrimination and retaliation but not gender discrimination.
The jury awarded $150,000 in damages and found, among other things, that:
(1) age was not a factor in Apache’s decision to discharge Davis;
(2) Davis filed a complaint of age or gender discrimination when she filed her internal complaint in December 2012;
(3) Apache terminated Davis because she filed her complaint of age or gender discrimination; and (4) Davis engaged in misconduct for which Apache could have legitimately fired her.
On their face, the jury’s findings appear confusing and highlight the complexity of these types of disputes. Apache raised numerous issues on appeal, and all were rejected except a challenge to attorneys’ fees. Of particular note, the Court of Appeals concluded that although Davis did not formally file a claim for gender discrimination, she exhausted her administrative remedies because the record in the EEOC action included Davis’s allegation of gender discrimination and a copy of the letter dated December 2012 contained allegations of gender discrimination.
Equally important, the Court of Appeals approved $696,616 in attorneys’ fees based on a record of a highly contentious two-year litigation involving a significant number of hours spent dealing with multiple depositions and motions practice. Even though Davis was unsuccessful in her discrimination claim, the Court concluded that because the recoverable and unrecoverable claims were “inextricably intertwined,” Davis was not required to segregate those fees from her successful gender discrimination claim. The Court reduced a portion of one attorney’s fees that were not justified by the vague and undetailed descriptions in the billing invoices. Apache takeaways—(1) it does not appear to take much to find an EEOC plaintiff sufficiently exhausted administrative remedies based on a claim the plaintiff did not formally make by checking the appropriate box; (2) lengthy litigation can lead to a large award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) lack of detail in attorneys’ fees records can result in a reduction of allowable attorneys’ fees.