Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Robert v. Stanford University (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 25, 2014)

I talked yesterday about how untoward it might be it seek to recover $20,000 in costs from a former employee who made less than $12,000 a year.

Here's the flip side of that equation.

It's facially similar.  Plaintiff brings a race discrimination claim and loses at trial.  Defendant -- Stanford University -- then seeks (and obtains) an award of $100,000 in attorneys' fees for the costs it incurred defending against the lawsuit.  Plaintiff seeks to reverse that award on the grounds that he's essentially impoverished.

That's where the similarities end, however.

Here are the two facts that radically distinguish the result of these two cases, and why the court rightly refused to award costs to the defendant in the case I discussed yesterday and yet (rightfully) awards attorneys' fees to the defendant in the present case:

(1)  The lawsuit in yesterday's case (Foster Farms) was expressly a "close" one.  By contrast, the court (rightly) found that the present case (Robert) was "without merit and was frivolous and vexatious."  There's a world of difference between cases that are close and cases that are utterly frivolous.

(2)  Somewhat related to (1), Foster Farms involved a (somewhat) sympathetic plaintiff who was fired from her job for visiting her sick father in Guatemala.  By contrast, Robert involves a plaintiff who was fired from his job at Stanford for far less sympathetic conduct.  The Court of Appeal's current opinion gives only a synopsis of the underlying facts, so here's a more detailed version -- one that was set forth in an earlier appeal by Robert from the restraining order that Stanford got against him (and that he then unsuccessfully appealed):

"Appellant Francis Robert, formerly a Stanford University employee, appeals after the trial court entered a restraining order against him under Code of Civil Procedure section 527.8 directing that he refrain from, among other things, stalking or following Sarah Noftsinger, who was also in Stanford's employ. Concluding that his claims of error have been forfeited on appeal and that he has not demonstrated reversible error in any event, we affirm the order. . . .

Noftsinger, in her twenties, began working as an assistant coach for the Stanford University women's soccer team in or around 2004. Robert, some 25 years her senior, had worked since 1998 in the Stanford admissions office processing athletic admission applications. Robert, an avid Stanford sports fan, frequently associated with people on campus connected with athletics and he attended many Stanford sports events, initially meeting Noftsinger through these connections.

Noftsinger and Robert became further acquainted with each other at work, although their employment duties or functions did not particularly overlap. At first, Noftsinger considered Robert simply as a work acquaintance and she politely refused him when he made overtures toward her that she perceived to be of a romantic nature. But, as time went on, it became clear that Robert was preoccupied with her. He would show up at her office sometimes many times a day. He would appear in parking lots where her car was parked. He communicated electronically with her, sending many instant messages most of which Noftsinger would just delete. Sometimes his messages and communications included references or information concerning her personal life that she had not disclosed to him. She would block text messages from him but he would find a way around that. He would appear at bars and restaurants where she frequented and stare at her. He gave her presents. He would follow her while driving and would drive past her house. In May 2006 when she was in the hospital having had surgery, he entered her room and took a photo of her while she was asleep or unconscious.

Over time and into 2007, Roberts preoccupation with and stalking of Noftsinger became pervasive and more aggressive, even ang[ry]. He referred to massacres that were going to occur and accused Noftsinger of treating him like a white Southerner treats a nigger. She attempted to ignore him and told him to leave her alone but in the spring of 2007, Noftsinger reported Roberts behavior to one of the Stanford coaches. Stanford conducted a full investigation, hiring an outside psychologist, Stephen White, to perform a workplace threat assessment. White interviewed Robert and Noftsinger, among others, and reviewed e-mails and messages that Robert had sent to Noftsinger. White concluded that Robert was strongly preoccupied with Noftsinger, that he had engaged in a persistent pattern of unwelcome pursuit, and that in spite of potentially adverse employment consequences to himself, Robert would have a very difficult time staying away from her. As a result of the investigation, in May or June of 2007, Stanford issued a stay-away order directing Robert to stay away from Noftsinger both on and off campus and to cease contacting her. Robert was told that if he did not comply, his employment would be terminated.

After the issuance of the stay-away order, Noftsinger made arrangements to move from Palo Alto to San Francisco. Her father and some friends agreed to help her move her belongings. On her moving day, Noftsinger saw Robert drive by her house while she loading belongings into her car. On route to her new home, those helping Noftsinger move observed Robert following in his car.

Then, late in the evening of January 22, 2008, while Noftsinger and a friend were walking Noftsinger's dog outside her San Francisco home, they saw Robert walking toward them on the street. The way he was staring at her and attempting to cover his face with one hand while keeping the other hand in his pocket alarmed Noftsinger and she thought he might have a gun. Afraid, Noftsinger and her friend made their way inside her apartment as quickly as they could. Noftsinger reported to Stanford that Robert was still stalking and harassing her despite the stay-away order. Although Robert had been harassing her for some time, this was the first time that Noftsinger had been afraid he had a gun. She was so fearful that she left town for three days after the incident.

Stephen White spoke with Noftsinger about the incident and he remained of the view that Robert would persist in his preoccupation with Noftsinger, despite the threat of termination of his employment. Also, Robert was caught lying when Stanford personnel investigated the incident. And it was not the first time that Robert had been observed in violation of the stay-away order. As a result, Stanford terminated Robert's employment."

That's the employment termination that Robert claims was "discriminatory" on the basis of his race (Native American).  A claim for which the trial court found he had no evidence and that Stanford was forced to defend -- and Ms. Noftsinger was forced to endure -- at trial.

You're going to get spanked for attorney's fees for that.  Even if you're indeed poor.  And no one other than you is going to complain.

(Moreover, plaintiff -- Francis Robert -- should count himself lucky (in my book) that unlike Foster Farms, Stanford did not file a cross-appeal about the trial court's decision to only award Stanford $100,000 despite the fact that it incurred $235,000 in fees.  Stanford did the right thing.  Despite the fact that it might well have won a cross-appeal.)