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Frampton v. University of North Carolina

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

August 15, 2017

PAUL FRAMPTON, Petitioner-Plaintiff,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA and THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL, Respondent-Defendants.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 2 May 2017.

         Appeal by plaintiff from orders entered 28 June and 3 August 2016 by Judge James E. Hardin, Jr., in Orange County, No. 13 CVS 699 Superior Court.

          Law Office of Barry Nakell, by Barry Nakell, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Kimberly D. Potter, for defendant-appellee.

          BRYANT, Judge.

         Where the plain language of a statute permits the trial court to exercise its discretion in the award of attorney's fees and where plaintiff does not establish an abuse of discretion in the court's denial of plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees, we affirm.

         The background of this case is set out in Frampton v. Univ. of N.C. (Frampton I), 241 N.C.App. 401, 773 S.E.2d 526 (2015). In brief, the case addressed the termination of Paul Frampton ("plaintiff"), a tenured professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ("UNC"), who was arrested in an airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina and ultimately convicted of smuggling cocaine found in his suitcase. Id. Following plaintiff's arrest, UNC's chancellor placed plaintiff on unpaid leave and terminated his salary and benefits without pursuing the disciplinary procedures outlined in the university's tenure policies. After appealing to the UNC Board of Trustees, which upheld the decision to place plaintiff on leave without pay, plaintiff filed a petition for judicial review of a State agency decision in Orange County Superior Court. The superior court affirmed UNC's actions, and plaintiff appealed to this Court. On appeal, this Court held that by placing plaintiff on personal, unpaid leave instead of pursuing formal disciplinary proceedings pursuant to the tenure policy, UNC violated its own policies. On this basis, this Court reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded the matter for the trial court to determine the appropriate amount of the salary and benefits withheld that should have been paid to plaintiff. Id. at 414, 773 S.E.2d at 535.

         Upon remand, plaintiff filed a motion requesting compensation for unpaid salary and benefits as well as attorney's fees. The trial court awarded plaintiff $231, 475.92 in back salary and $31, 824.53 for loss of benefits, but denied the motion for attorney's fees. The trial court found "UNC-Chapel Hill did not act without substantial justification as it attempted to manage an unusual set of circumstances that were not of its own making, and that it would be unjust to require the State to pay attorney fees under such special circumstances." Plaintiff now appeals the trial court's denial of his request for attorney's fees to this Court.[1]

         On appeal, plaintiff argues the trial court abused its discretion by denying his motion for an award of attorney's fees, made pursuant to our General Statutes, section 6-19.1, contending the trial court improperly concluded UNC (I) acted with substantial justification (2) under special circumstances that would make the award unjust. We disagree.

         The standard of review for a trial court's decision whether to award attorney's fees is abuse of discretion. High Rock Lake Partners, LLC v. N.C. Dep't of Transp., 234 N.C.App. 336, 760 S.E.2d 750 (2014). "A ruling committed to a trial court's discretion is to be accorded great deference and will be upset only upon a showing that it was so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision." Smith v. Beaufort Cty. Hosp. Ass'n, Inc., 141 N.C.App. 203, 210, 540 S.E.2d 775, 780 (2000) (citation omitted). On appeal, the appellant has the burden to show the trial court's ruling was unsupported by reason or could not be the product of a reasoned decision. High Rock Lake Partners, LLC, 234 N.C.App. at 340, 760 S.E.2d at 753.

         As the appellant, here, plaintiff contends the trial court abused its discretion by finding "UNC-Chapel Hill did not act without substantial justification" under special circumstances and that it would be unjust to require UNC to pay plaintiff's attorney's fees.

         General Statutes, section 6-19.1, specifically addresses the awarding of attorney's fees to parties defending against agency decisions.

In any civil action . . . brought by a party who is contesting State action . . . the court may, in its discretion, allow the prevailing party to recover reasonable attorney's fees, including attorney's fees applicable to the administrative review portion of the case . . . if:
(1) The court finds that the agency acted without substantial justification in pressing its claim ...

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