Worker Entitled to Attorney Fees Irrespective of Amount Recovered – Employment Law Weekly

Worker Entitled to Attorney Fees Irrespective of Amount Recovered

Elinton Gramajo worked as a delivery driver for Joe’s Pizza from February 2014 to June 2015.

In February 2018,he sued Joe’s Pizza on Sunset, Inc.; Joe’s Pizza on Sunset, LLC; and Giuseppe Vitale for failure to pay minimum and overtime wages (Lab. Code, §§ 510, 558, 1194), failure to provide rest and meal periods (Lab. Code, §§ 512, 226.7), failure to pay wages due at time of termination (Lab. Code, §§ 201, 202, 203), failure to reimburse for business expenses (Lab. Code, § 2802), and unfair business practices (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200). Gramajo also sought declaratory and injunctive relief.

After nearly four years of litigation and extensive discovery, the matter was set for trial in October 2021. Gramajo sought $26,159.33 in unpaid minimum and overtime wages, missed meal and rest breaks, waiting time penalties, and unreimbursed expenses. After a seven-day trial, the jury found in favor of Gramajo on his minimum wage and overtime causes of action. The jury awarded Gramajo $2.17 in unpaid minimum wages and $3,340 in unpaid overtime wages. In total, Gramajo recovered $7,659.63, consisting of the unpaid minimum and overtime wages; $2,115.59 in statutory interest; $2,100 in waiting time penalties calculated at the daily wage rate of $70 per day for thirty days per Labor Code section 203; $2.17 in liquidated damages; and $100 in statutory penalties.

Gramajo moved for attorney fees totaling $296,920 for 228.4 hours billed at $650 per hour and applying a multiplier of two. Gramajo also requested $26,932.84 in costs. Joe’s Pizza opposed the fee request and moved to tax Gramajo’s costs in their entirety.

The trial court denied Gramajo’s fee request and granted Joe’s Pizza’s motion to tax costs, ultimately awarding Gramajo nothing. The trial court found Gramajo acted in bad faith by artificially inflating his damages figure and including equity claims he never intended to pursue to justify filing the case as an unlimited civil proceeding. The trial court noted Gramajo sought $26,159.33 at trial, just over the jurisdictional amount, which included $10,822.16 in unreimbursed expenses.

In trial, however, Gramajo never introduced any evidence to support his expense claim. Similarly, Gramajo never pursued injunctive or declaratory relief at trial despite requesting that relief in his complaint. The trial court also found the case was severely over litigated, noting Gramajo had propounded 15 sets of written discovery requests and noticed 14 depositions despite only admitting 12 exhibits at trial.

On appeal, Gramajo argues the trial court should have awarded him reasonable litigation costs under Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a), and abused its discretion by applying Code of Civil Procedure section 1033, subdivision (a), to deny those costs in their entirety.

The Court of Appeal agreed with Gramajo in the published case of Gramajo v. Joe’s Pizza on Sunset, Inc. -B322697 (March 2024).

Code of Civil Procedure section 1033 gives the trial court discretion to deny litigation costs based on the amount recovered while Labor Code section 1194 provides for a mandatory cost award regardless of that amount. Neither statute address the question of which one should control in this area of overlap.

The Court of Appeal held the “Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a), controls given the legislative intent behind Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a), and because that statute is more recently enacted and more specific relative to Code of Civil Procedure section 1033.”

It concluded that ” employees who prevail in actions to recover unpaid minimum and overtime wages are entitled to their reasonable litigation costs under Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a), irrespective of the amount recovered.

It however expressed no opinion on the reasonableness of Gramajo’s requests for litigation costs. Accordingly, it reversed and remanded the matter for the trial court to determine a reasonable fee and cost award.

Worker Entitled to Attorney Fees Irrespective of Amount Recovered

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