Federal law means what the United States Supreme Court says it does. There are no ifs, no buts, no questions about it. Yet sometimes, stubborn state courts try to get away with one.
This can happen because state courts routinely hear cases that involve both state and federal statutes. Labor and employment is an area that frequently brings such situations about. A bevy of federal laws makes various forms of discrimination illegal. But each state also has its own collection of anti-discrimination statutes. An employee who complains of having been discriminated against can therefore bring a case under both state and federal law at the same time, and typically will. That complaint may be filed, at the plaintiff’s discretion, and either a state or federal court.
So it was that an Oregon Court had to rule on a case brought, in part, under a federal civil rights statute. When it found for the defendant (the employer), it faced the U.S. Supremes’ long-entrenched interpretation that a defendant may only recover fees if its position was frivolous. Victims of civil rights violations (ie plaintiffs), the Supreme Court had decided, are after all those that the fees provision was meant to empower.
Oregon courts chafed at having their discretion so curtailed. They awarded the defendant its fees without finding the employee’s position frivolous. The Supreme Court took the case and reversed in a two page opinion that amounted to a brisk slap on the wrist.
Not all attorneys practice in both state and federal courts. Those who do are mindful of the differences, and of the interaction between state and federal laws. It is one more element to consider in choosing the right attorney to represent your business.