By Nicholas Pappayliou and Samuel Gilleran
Early last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that victorious plaintiff voters were entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs from the opposing party, the Guilford County Board of Elections, despite the fact that the Board merely enforced but did not craft the legislation giving rise to the dispute.
Facts and Procedural History
This case began when eight voting-age Greensboro citizens and the City of Greensboro challenged the constitutional validity of a law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly that redistricted Greensboro’s city council. The Plaintiffs chose to name the Guilford County Board of Elections as defendant in their lawsuit, notably leaving out potentially liable parties such as the North Carolina General Assembly and State Board of Elections, among others.
After a short bench trial, the district court determined that the law was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and issued a permanent injunction preventing the Board from implementing the legislation. Thereafter, the Greensboro citizens filed a motion for attorney’s fees and costs from the Board. Typically, “prevailing parties” in redistricting cases should “ordinarily recover” their fees. But in cases with “special circumstances,” the district court has discretion to deny the motion for fees.
In this case, the district court denied the motion because it found that (1) the Board was “innocent” and “not responsible,” i.e., the General Assembly was responsible for enacting the statute and the Board was simply the local functionary of the legislature, and (2) the voters chose to sue only the Board and not the more culpable parties. The court believed that assessing fees would incentivize plaintiffs to sue local governments or parties who would not defend the suit instead of suing the officials who were more responsible and more likely to vigorously defend the suit. The voters appealed the district court’s determination of “special circumstances” to the Fourth Circuit. Consequently, the issue before the Fourth Circuit was: whether the district court ventured outside of its “narrow” discretion in denying the voters’ motion for attorney’s fees because of the purported “special circumstances” surrounding the Board’s role in implementing the unconstitutional North Carolina statute.
The voters argued that the court in this case abused its discretion in denying the fees by construing the “special circumstances” exception too broadly. The voters argued that the district court’s findings did not rise to the level of special circumstances, noting that the point of fee-shifting provisions is to compensate attorneys who prosecute redistricting cases, not to penalize the defendant.
The Board disagreed, arguing that because it opted not to fight the lawsuit, it should not be responsible for fees. It also argued that it would be unjust for Guilford County as a county to incur the costs that were caused by the state’s enactment of an unconstitutional law.
The Circuit’s Majority Opinion and Dissent
The Fourth Circuit panel ruled in favor of the voters. The majority opinion, authored by Judge Niemeyer, noted that the fee-shifting statutes at issue were enacted to incentivize attorneys to take redistricting cases: “[t]he purpose of fee shifting is not to punish those responsible for promulgating unconstitutional laws, but rather to ‘enable potential plaintiffs to obtain the assistance of competent counsel in vindicating their rights.’” So it was irrelevant that the Board had nothing to do with enacting the unconstitutional law; because the “Board was charged with enforcing the Act and [the voters] obtained full relief” in their suit against the Board, it was a “run-of-the-mill occurrence” that fees would be awarded against the Board.
And because it was normal for fee awards to be awarded against those who merely enforce the law, the Board’s argument that it facilitated the lawsuit by not defending it was also unmeritorious. The “Board’s conduct during litigation may have limited its fee liability, [but] it did not immunize the Board from fee liability.” Finally, the circuit court held that it would not be unjust to assess fees against the county for the state’s actions. The burden that it would impose on the county to pay fees in this case is not the voters’ problem or the court’s problem; rather, the “Board’s concerns are ultimately about how North Carolina has chosen” which departments of government enforce election laws.
dissented. In his view, the district court did have discretion to deny fees
when the plaintiffs engaged in “strategic”
that resulted in a “local government entity with no meaningful responsibility
for [the law] and whose budget is far smaller than the state’s” being assessed
Judge Richardson would have held that the district court did not abuse its
discretion in finding that these were “peculiar circumstances” justifying a
denial of fees.
 Id. at *2.
 Id. at *3 (citing N.Y. Gaslight Club, Inc. v. Carey, 447 U.S. 54, 68 (1980)).
 Id. (describing how the Fourth Circuit has swiftly corrected denials of motions attorney’s fees in the past).
 Id. at *4.
 Id. (quoting Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432, 436 (1991).
 Id. at *5.
 Id. at *7.
 Id. at *8.
 Id. (quoting ruling below).