Faith Gonzales worked at a Bill Miller barbecue restaurant. As any San Antonian would know, Bill Miller’s is a fast-food version of barbecue and is a local institution. She complained about discriminatory conduct and was fired in 2008. She filed her charge with the EEOC. The matter did not go to trial until January, 2013. After a two day trial, the Bexar County Court-at-law jury awarded $30,000 in lost pay and emotional suffering damages. Most juries award relatively small amounts for lost pay and emotional suffering type damages.
As often happens with civil rights lawsuits, the larger money is in the attorney’s fees. Ms. Gonzales’ lawyers submitted an attorney fee request for $65,000. They submitted the request to the judge after the trial, not to the jury and not during trial. The employer, Bill Miller, argued the fee request should have been made to the jury. The judge disagreed and awarded $60,000 in attorney’s fees.
On appeal, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio agreed with the defendant. It said attorney’s fees must be decided by a jury, even though at least one Texas Supreme Court case, El Apple I, Ltd. v. Olivas, 370 S.W.3d 757 (Tex. 2012), indicates that judges should decide attorney fees. See the decision in Gonzales v. Bill Miller here. The Fourth Court noted that two other Texas courts of appeals have found that attorney’s fees should be determined by the court, not by a jury. The Fourth Court noted that the reasonableness of an attorney fee is a fact issue. The court also noted correctly that El Apple I did not state clearly that a court should determine attorney’s fees. It did refer generally describe the lower court’s role as reviewing attorney fee requests for reasonableness. El Apple I, pp. 763-64. It would be impossible for a jury to perform that role. Nevertheless, the Fourth Court added, the Supreme Court in El Apple I was not presented with the question of who should decide the question of attorney’s fees. That is true. The Texas Supreme Court did not address who specifically should determine a jury fee award.
So, the appellate court returned the case to Bexar County Court-at-Law No. 7 for trial simply on the issue of attorney’s fees. The jury then awarded some $127,000 in attorney’s fees. The Defendant may be wishing it had not sought this appeal, after all.