By Carlyn Kolker
(Reuters) - A pizza restaurant must pay attorneys' fees to a
woman who sued for sexual harassment, the 7th Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled on Monday, reversing a lower court judge.
The ruling stems from a $30,000 settlement between Juana
Sanchez and Prudential Pizza, which operates Giordano's pizza
restaurant in Chicago, after Sanchez, a telephone clerk at the
restaurant, sued for sex discrimination, sexual harassment and
Prudential Pizza's written settlement offer to Sanchez said
it included "all of plaintiff's claims for relief." It didn't
specify whether that included attorneys' fees. In a separate
filing, Sanchez sought $140,000 in attorneys' fees from the
pizza operator. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the
governing anti-discrimination law, winning plaintiffs can
recover attorneys' fees.
In April last year, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson
Coleman denied Sanchez's motion for fees, saying that the
$30,000 settlement included fees and costs.
"This court believes that costs and fees were specifically
addressed by the terms of the offer of judgment," Coleman wrote
in the order.
Sanchez appealed and a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit
ruled in her favor, remanding the case to Coleman to determine
"reasonable" fees and costs. According to the appellate panel,
under federal rule of civil procedure 68, which governs certain
settlement offers, parties making offers must be clear about
what they are offering.
"If the terms of a Rule 68 offer are not specific and clear,
there are opportunities for both confusion and mischief," Judge
David Hamilton wrote for the panel, which also included Judge
Frank Easterbrook and Robert Miller, a district court judge
sitting by designation.
"Once more we must teach defendants making Rule 68 offers to
be specific and clear in their offers. Any ambiguities will be
resolved against them," Hamilton wrote.
The issues highlighted in the 7th Circuit's decision
typically arise in employment cases in which a defendant is
making a so-called offer of judgment, a short agreement that
defendants offer plaintiffs shortly before a trial is slated,
said Jonathan Goldman, an attorney at Chicago law firm Goldman &
Offers of judgment contrast with private settlement
agreements, in which attorneys fees are typically more
specifically spelled out, and they tend to occur more frequently
in cases that don't have high damages, said Goldman.
"It's nice that it appears that the plaintiff can have her
cake and eat it too," said Goldman, who typically represents
plaintiffs in employment disputes.
Sanchez's attorney, Jeffrey Grant Brown, declined to
comment, and Prudential Pizza's attorney, Zane Smith, didn't
immediately return a call seeking comment.
The case is Juana Sanchez v. Prudential Pizza, U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 12-2208.
For plaintiff: Jeffrey Grant Brown of Jeffrey Grant Brown.
For defendant: Zane Smith of Zane Smith & Associates.
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