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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 17, 2016

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff,
v.
COLLEGEAMERICA DENVER, INC., n/k/a CENTER FOR EXCELLENCE IN HIGHER EDUCATION, INC., d/b/a COLLEGEAMERICA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE.

         This case is before me on Defendant CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc.'s (“CollegeAmerica”) Motion for Attorneys' Fees [ Doc # 147]. After consideration of the motion, all related pleadings, and the case file, I deny CollegeAmerica's motion.

         I. Background

         By Order dated December 2, 2014, I granted CollegeAmerica's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (the “EEOC”) first and second claims for relief but denied its motion to dismiss the EEOC's claim for retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the “ADEA”). See Doc # 16. Well over a year later after significant discovery, the parties proceeded to trial on the EEOC's retaliation claim. At the close of the EEOC's case, CollegeAmerica moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 but this motion was denied. The jury thereafter returned a verdict in favor of CollegeAmerica.

         CollegeAmerica now seeks to recover the attorney fees it incurred in this case on and after January 11, 2016 because it asserts that the deposition testimony given on that date by Debbi Potts, the party that CollegeAmerica was alleged to have retaliated against, conclusively established that the EEOC's retaliation claim had no merit. CollegeAmerica's request for attorney fees was initially predicated on three legal bases: (1) the ADEA; (2) the Court's inherent authority; and (3) the Equal Access to Justice Act (the “EAJA”). CollegeAmerica has since withdrawn its request for attorney fees under the EAJA, and I need only consider whether it is entitled to attorney fees under the ADEA and/or the Court's inherent authority.

         II. Analysis

         A. Ms. Potts' Deposition Testimony

         Because CollegeAmerica's request for attorney fees under both the ADEA and the Court's inherent authority is predicated in large part on Ms. Potts' January 11, 2016 deposition testimony, close analysis of this testimony is warranted. CollegeAmerica argues that there was no merit to the EEOC's retaliation claim in light of Ms. Potts' deposition testimony that (1) she had notice that CollegeAmerica intended to sue her before she filed her first Charge of Discrimination; (2) she filed her first Charge of Discrimination because of CollegeAmerica's decision to sue her; (3) she used an ageist slur to refer to a co-worker; and (4) the allegations in her Charge of Discrimination were false.

         First, the fact that Ms. Potts' had notice that CollegeAmerica intended to sue her for violating the terms of her termination agreement before she filed her first Charge of Discrimination did not preclude the EEOC from proving the causation element of its retaliation claim since the threat of litigation is not equivalent to the filing of a lawsuit. In addition, as I noted in my Order on CollegeAmerica's Motion to Dismiss, see Doc #16, CollegeAmerica did not sue Ms. Potts immediately after she failed to return the $7, 000 payment she received under her termination agreement but rather waited 43 days after the payment deadline had passed, or a mere 7 days after it received notice of Ms. Potts' first Charge of Discrimination, to file its lawsuit against her.

         Second, the facts that Ms. Potts was motivated to file the first Charge of Discrimination because CollegeAmerica threatened to sue her or that Ms. Potts herself once used an ageist slur to refer to a co-worker do not conclusively establish that there was no merit to her Charge or to the retaliation claim that the EEOC filed on her behalf.

         Finally, it is clear from her deposition testimony that there was little evidence to support the allegations in Ms. Potts' Charge of Discrimination that she was forced to quit her job with CollegeAmerica due to discrimination and that younger employees were given better severance packages than her. CollegeAmerica's affirmative defense that Ms. Potts did not have a reasonable and good faith belief in the allegations in her Charge was therefore a strong one. However, the admissibility of evidence relating to the merits of Ms. Potts' Charge was an issue of significant dispute between the parties, and Tenth Circuit law is somewhat ambiguous on this point. Compare Vaughn v. Epworth Villa, 537 F.3d 1147 (10th Cir. 2008) (recognizing that participation clause under Title VII provides broader protection than opposition clause and that district court erred in concluding that plaintiff had not engaged in protected activity based on “dishonest or disloyal” conduct in submitting unredacted medical records to the EEOC) with Crumpacker v. Kan. Dept. of Human Resources, 338 F.3d 1163 (10th Cir. 2003) (prior decisions interpreting Title VII as permitting retaliation claims based on unreasonable good-faith belief that underlying conduct violated Title VII were no longer good law). In fact, this issue was not decided by me until the commencement of trial.

         In conclusion then, while Ms. Potts' January 11, 2016 deposition testimony may have undermined the EEOC's retaliation claim against CollegeAmerica, it did not conclusively establish that this claim was wholly without merit.

         B. Attorney Fees Under the ADEA

         Although the ADEA does not provide for an award of attorney fees, this Court has stated that attorney fees may be awarded to a prevailing defendant in an ADEA case upon a showing that the plaintiff litigated the action in “bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons.” Taylor v. Hewett-Packard Co., 2008 WL 205613 at *2 (D. Colo. Jan. 24, 2008). This standard is more stringent than ...


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