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A California state appeal court ruled Tuesday that a Los Angeles judge abused his discretion by awarding $150,000 in attorneys’ fees to a law firm that prevailed in a discrimination suit filed by a former partner. Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal reversed the award issued by Superior Court Judge David Workman, saying there was no evidence that the suit filed by former partner Shari Cohen Rosenman was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless. “To the contrary,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote for the court, “there is no doubt she suffered pregnancy-related difficulties while working at the firm, and well-established legal principles supported her claim of discrimination based on pregnancy, and failure to reasonably accommodate her pregnancy.” Justice Norvell Frederick “Fred” Woods Jr. and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Paul Boland, sitting by designation, concurred. Rosenman sued L.A.’s Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, claiming that the firm did nothing to accommodate her after she gave birth to her first child in 1996. She also said the firm discriminated by not paying her “special distributions” received by other partners, claiming she had performance problems during her pregnancy. Rosenman left the firm in 1997 and now works for a small civil litigation firm, according to the court’s ruling. At trial, jurors voted 10-2 in favor of the firm, which immediately sought attorneys’ fees under FEHA rules that permit a prevailing party to claim them. The appeal court, however, pointed out that fees are only allowed where a suit is deemed frivolous, vexatious or unreasonable. “Where the plaintiff presents a colorable claim, and particularly where the adverse jury verdict is less than unanimous, such an award is inappropriate in light of the very strong public anti-discrimination policy embodied in FEHA,” Justice Johnson wrote. “Any other standard would have the disastrous effect of closing the courtroom door to plaintiffs who have meritorious claims but who dare not risk the financial ruin caused by an award of attorney fees if they ultimately do not succeed.” The attorneys’ fee portion of the ruling was certified for publication, but the rest of the ruling — in which the appeal court upheld the lower court verdict — was not. In that portion, the appeal court said the trial court judge did not err by admitting into evidence documents that the law firm used to impeach Rosenman’s testimony about her workload during her pregnancy. In particular, the firm showed that Rosenman was — in its words — “a bald face liar” when she argued that the firm had assigned her 12 new cases after her pregnancy became public. Instead, the court noted, the evidence showed that Rosenman “had been assigned most of the 12 cases before her pregnancy.”

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