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U.S. Supreme Court

New York Gaslight Club, Inc. v. Carey, 447 U.S. 54 (1980)

New York Gaslight Club, Inc. v. Carey

No. 79-192

Argued February 19, 1980

Decided June 9, 1980

447 U.S. 54


Section 706(k) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that in "any action or proceeding under this title" the court may allow attorney's fees to "the prevailing party," other than the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the United States. Alleging that petitioners had denied her employment because of her race, respondent filed an employment discrimination charge with the EEOC, which, as required by Title VII, forwarded the complaint to the appropriate New York administrative agency. Respondent was represented by counsel throughout administrative and judicial proceedings in the state system, which proceedings ultimately resulted in affirmance of the state agency's order directing petitioners to offer respondent employment and pay back wages, but not awarding attorney's fees. Meanwhile, the EEOC reassumed jurisdiction and, under § 706(f) of Title VII, issued a right-to-sue letter to respondent, who filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging a claim under Title VII, inter alia, and seeking appropriate relief, including attorney's fees. Petitioners having agreed to comply with the state agency's order, the District Court dismissed the federal action, except for respondent's request for attorney's fees, including fees for her attorney's services in the state proceedings. The court later denied the fee request, ruling that, although the EEOC's issuance of a right-to-sue letter had forced respondent to preserve her rights by filing a complaint in federal court, the mere filing of a federal suit did not entitle an aggrieved party to attorney's fees, and that respondent had the option of pursuing her state administrative remedies without incurring any expenses for legal services, since state law provides that the case in support of the complaint is to be presented to the administrative hearing examiner by one of the state agency's attorneys. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: Sections 706(f) and 706(k) of Title VII authorize a federal court action to recover an award of attorney's fees for work done by the prevailing complainant in state administrative and judicial proceedings to which the complainant was referred pursuant to the provisions of Title VII, and no special circumstances exist in this case that would justify denial of a fee award. Pp. 447 U. S. 60-71.

Page 447 U. S. 55

(a) Congress' use of the broadly inclusive disjunctive phrase "any action or proceeding" in § 706(k) indicates an intent to subject the losing party to an award of attorney's fees and costs that includes expenses incurred for administrative proceedings. Other provisions of the statute that interact with § 706(k), the purpose of § 706(k) to facilitate the bringing of discrimination complaints, the humanitarian remedial policies of Title VII, and the statute's structure of cooperation between federal and state enforcement authorities -- calling for deferral to state proceedings, with proceedings before the EEOC and in federal courts being supplements to available state remedies -- all point to the conclusion that fee awards are authorized for work done in state administrative or judicial proceedings as, well as in federal proceedings. Since Congress intended to authorize fee awards for work done in administrative proceedings, § 706(f)(1)'s authorization of a civil suit in federal court encompasses a suit solely to obtain an award of attorney's fees for legal work done in state or local proceedings. Pp. 447 U. S. 666.

(b) Awarding fees for work done in state proceedings for which the State does not authorize fees does not infringe on the State's powers under the Tenth Amendment, since Congress' power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment is broad, and overrides any interest the State might have in not authorizing awards for fees. Nor is there any merit in the argument that Congress' intent to preempt the state law has not been clearly expressed. Section 706(k) does not "preempt" state law, since § 706(f)(1) merely provides a supplemental right to sue in federal court if satisfactory relief is not obtained in state forums, and one aspect of complete relief is an award of attorney's fees, which Congress considered necessary for the fulfillment of federal goals. And even if it can be said that § 706(k) preempts the state rule, Congress' intent to achieve this result is manifest. Furthermore, the availability under New York law of an agency attorney to present the case in support of the complaint at the public hearing is not a "special circumstance" depriving a prevailing complainant of a fee award, since a private attorney is needed to assist the complainant during administrative procedures before and after the public hearing stage, and even if an agency attorney appears at the public hearing, he does not represent the complainant's interests, but rather those of the State. Pp. 447 U. S. 66-70.

598 F.2d 1253, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in all but n. 6 of which BURGER, C.J.,joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 447 U. S. 71. WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 447 U. S. 71.

Page 447 U. S. 56

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