In a recent Appellate Division case, Michael vs. Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, et al., the New Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division was presented with a question of whether reasonable counsel fees could be awarded to a Defendant who prevails in an action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Typically, counsel fees are only awarded to a prevailing Plaintiff under the Law Against Discrimination. In the Michael case, Plaintiff was a part-time employee of Defendant Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for more than twenty years and filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination, a hostile work environment and other tort based claims. Plaintiff’s claims centered on the hospital’s vacation policy, tuition reimbursement policy and Plaintiff’s performance evaluations. The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing Plaintiff’s claims without a trial.
After the trial court entered summary judgment, the Defendant moved for counsel fees and costs, relying on the Frivolous Lawsuit Statute and on the Law Against Discrimination. The Law Against Discrimination provides that reasonable attorney fees may be awarded to the prevailing party where there is a determination that the complainant brought the charge in “bad faith”.
The Appellate Division held in Michael that the determination of the term “bad faith” must be viewed within the context of the particular matter being considered. The Appellate Division equated “bad faith” with a reckless disregard or purposeful obliviousness of the known facts.
The Michael Appellate Court remanded the matter back to the trial court to determine if the complaint was filed in “bad faith” and if it was, what constituted a reasonable award of counsel fees taking into account the Plaintiff’s ability to pay and the extent to which the Plaintiff relied on the advice of counsel.
This case is instructive as reasonable counsel fees and costs may be awarded to a successful Defendant who prevails in an action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination if it is found that Plaintiff’s complaint was brought in “bad faith” and that Plaintiff had the economic circumstances to pay an attorney fee award. This decision permits a trial judge to consider the award of counsel fees to a prevailing Defendant if it is determined that the discrimination lawsuit was brought in “bad faith”. Although the “bad faith” standard will be difficult for a Defendant to prove, it will give pause to the Plaintiff who files a frivolous lawsuit.