By Evelyn Norton

Did the District Court Abuse its Discretion in Denying Appellant’s Motions?

In Pitrolo v. County of Buncombe, NC, Plaintiff-Appellant Melanie Pitrolo claimed that the district court abused its discretion in denying each of her post-trial motions.  In its October 1, 2012 order the district court denied Appellant’s motion for attorney’s fees and declaratory relief.  Similarly, in its February 13, 2013 order the district court denied Appellant’s motion to recuse, first motion to vacate, and supplemental motion to vacate.

Appellant’s Title VII Claim

In 2006, Appellant sued the County of Buncombe, North Carolina, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency (“Agency”), the Agency’s Board of Directors, and its members in their individual capacities.  Appellant alleged that the Agency violated Title VII when it considered Appellant’s gender as a motivating factor in deciding to deny Appellant a promotion to Interim Director of the Agency’s Board.

Defendant-Appellees moved for summary judgment on all claims.  On October 10, 2007, the district court granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed Appellant’s case.

On appeal on March 11, 2009, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s summary judgment grant dismissing Appellant’s gender discrimination claim and remanded for trial.  On July 22, 2009, a jury found that while Appellees did unlawfully consider Appellant’s gender as a motivating factor in its decision, Appellant would have been denied the promotion regardless of her gender.  As a result, the district court did not award any damages.

In response, Appellant moved for attorney’s fees and declaratory judgment on August 7, 2009, but the district court declined to rule on the motion and entered judgment in favor of Appellees notwithstanding the verdict.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that Appellant was entitled to seek attorney’s fees and declaratory relief, but did not consider whether such relief should be granted.

During the following month, the case was reassigned to district court Judge Reidinger.  On October 1, 2012, the district court denied Appellant’s Motion for attorney’s fees and declaratory relief.  On October 19, 2012, Appellant filed a motion demanding Judge Reidinger recuse himself, a motion to vacate the October 1 order, and a supplemental motion to vacate.

Following denial of each motion, Appellant appealed once again to the Fourth Circuit alleging that the district court abused its discretion in denying all post-trial motions.

1. The Fourth Circuit Lacked Jurisdiction to Review Appellant’s Motions for Recusal and Vacatur.

The Fourth Circuit dismissed Appellant’s claim that the district court abused its discretion in denying Appellant’s motions for recusal and vacatur in the February 13, 2013 order.  Appellant first filed her Third Notice of Appeal on October 31, 2012.  However, the district court’s February 13, 2013 order was entered more than thirty days after its October 1, 2012 order.  Thus, Appellant was required to file a separate notice of appeal to challenge the later order, but failed to do so.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit lacked jurisdiction.

2. The District Court Did Not Abuse its Discretion in the October 1, 2012 Order.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Appellant’s motion for attorney’s fees and declaratory relief.

First, the Fourth Circuited noted that the district court denied Appellant declaratory judgment because it believed declaratory judgment would “do little more than simply affirm the jury’s verdict,” primarily because Appellant had not been in Appellees’ employment for several years.  However, the Fourth Circuit stated that the district court should have considered factors articulated in Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Ind-Com Electric Co.

Yet, in applying these factors, the Fourth Circuit still concluded that they weighed against declaratory judgment.  Specifically, under factor one, the Fourth Circuit found declaratory relief would not clarify any issue of law.  Considering factor two, the Fourth Circuit also found declaratory relief would not resolve any uncertainties.

Second, in examining the issue of attorney fees, the Fourth Circuit considered the extent of relief sought versus that obtained, whether the legal issues were significant, and whether the litigation served a public purpose.  The Fourth Circuit first noted that Appellant did not request declaratory relief until after the jury verdict.  The Court concluded that “[t]he core of Appellant’s case had little to no precedential value to the body of Title VII case law” and that Appellant did not “accomplish some public goal other than occupying the time and energy of counsel, court, and client.”  Thus, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Appellant’s motion for attorney’s fees and declaratory relief.

Dismissed in Part and Affirmed in Part

The Fourth Circuit dismissed Appellant’s claim that the district court abused its discretion in denying Appellant’s motions for recusal and vacatur.  However, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Appellant’s motion for attorney’s fees and declaratory relief.

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