Court: Fees an unwarranted penalty for losing suit

Of the Associated Press

PORTLAND — A former Oregon prison guard lost her gender-discrimination suit against the state. Then, a judge decided her claims were untruthful and ordered her to pay $30,000 in attorney's fees.

But the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that such a penalty could have a chilling effect on other litigants who want to sue but don't, for fear that they too could face tens of thousands of dollars in fees if they lose.

The appeals court ruled Wednesday that the presiding judge for Malheur County Circuit Court erred when he awarded the state attorney's fees after a jury found Oregon was not guilty of the discrimination charges. The court referred to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which set standards for the awarding of attorney's fees.

“This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims,” the U.S. Supreme Court decision read, “for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success.”

The decision to punish a plaintiff for bringing such a claim, a rarity in Oregon, was based in Judge J. Burdette Pratt's feeling that corrections officer Ronda Park's claims were “unreasonable, frivolous, and without foundation,” despite previous rulings by the same judge that allowed the case to proceed.

To allow such cases to proceed, the Department of Corrections warned, would allow suits “based on fabricated events to be brought with impunity.”

Park said she was treated differently than male co-workers, and gave examples of discrimination the state didn't dispute and were entered into the case as fact. After the Department of Corrections put Park on leave for three-and-a-half months while it investigated the case, Park complained to the Civil Rights Division of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The division found “substantial evidence of an unlawful employment practice” concerning Park's gender-discrimination claim. She sued in state court.

After the jury ruled against Park, Pratt made the attorney fee award and clarified his position: “This is not a case of different witnesses remembering events differently. This is a disturbing case of a plaintiff lying under oath in support of her claims.”

Ultimately, the appeals court found that, even if Park wasn't truthful, lying isn't a reason to pile on attorney's fees.

“Although there may be circumstances where a plaintiff's untruthfulness about certain facts is so pertinent to the basis of the plaintiff's discrimination claims that those claims are rendered unreasonable by that untruthfulness,” the court ruled, “this is not such a case.”

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