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City of Greensboro v. Guilford County Board of Elections

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

January 3, 2018

CITY OF GREENSBORO, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.

         The State of North Carolina enacted an unconstitutional statute that violated the rights of the plaintiffs, the City of Greensboro and a number of individual Greensboro residents, who brought a successful challenge to the law. The individual plaintiffs move for attorney's fees incurred successfully challenging this unconstitutional law which, as prevailing parties, they should ordinarily recover. The plaintiffs named one defendant in the case, the Guilford County Board of Elections. The County Board had the statutory duty to enforce the unconstitutional law, but it had nothing to do with passing it, nor did it defend the law in court. The plaintiffs did not name the State or any state entity or actor as a defendant. Despite notice and statutory rights to intervene, neither the leaders of the General Assembly nor the Attorney General appeared in court to defend the Act or to concede that it was unconstitutional.

         The Court is therefore forced to choose between two bad options: assessing attorney's fees against a litigant who neither enacted nor defended the unconstitutional Act, or denying a fee award to the individual plaintiffs and their lawyers who prevailed on the merits of two equal protection claims, vindicating important constitutional rights. Neither outcome is just.

         Faced with this dilemma, the Court concludes that in the peculiar circumstances of this case, it would be unjust to require the County Board to pay the individual plaintiffs' attorney's fees. The plaintiffs chose not to include any state entities or agents as defendants and the County Board did not enact the unconstitutional law or defend it in any way. In its discretion, the Court will deny the individual plaintiffs' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Relevant Procedural History

         In 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly passed N.C. Session Law 138 (“the Act”), changing the Greensboro City Council from a three-at-large, five-single-district council to an eight-single-district council and drawing lines for the new districts. 2015 N.C. Sess. Laws 138, City of Greensboro Elections, available at Doc 1-1. The Act also prohibited the City Council or citizen-led referendums and initiatives from changing the city government. Id. at § 2. (b).

         Soon thereafter, several individual plaintiffs and the City of Greensboro filed suit challenging the Act's constitutionality. They raised equal protections claims, including a claim arising from population disparities among the new districts that appeared to be based on race and partisan affiliations of incumbents. They asked this Court to declare the Act unconstitutional and to enjoin its enforcement. Doc. 1.

         The complaint named only one defendant: the Guilford County Board of Elections, the entity assigned responsibility under state law for conducting municipal elections for the City of Greensboro. Doc. 1. Under North Carolina law, any lawsuit seeking to enjoin a local election must include the county election board as a necessary party. Wright v. North Carolina, 787 F.3d 256, 262-63 (4th Cir. 2015). Under the Eleventh Amendment, the State of North Carolina has immunity from suit in these circumstances, see Wright, 787 F.3d at 261 n. 2, and it was not named as a defendant.

         The Court entered a preliminary injunction blocking the Act's implementation on July 23, 2015. Doc. 36. After the County Board filed an answer, Doc. 50, discovery commenced. Doc. 57.

         No one substantively defended the Act's constitutionality. The County Board reasonably took the position that it had a duty to fairly and impartially administer whatever elections laws validly apply and that it had no duty to determine whether a law is constitutional. E.g., Doc. 100-1 at 5; see N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163-33, 163-284(b) (West, Westlaw through 2017 Regular Session). The County Board was not involved with passing the Act and other than its records, it possessed no significant evidence relevant to the plaintiffs' equal protection claims. It offered no evidence or legal argument in support of the Act at any stage, and limited its participation to providing information to and complying with orders from this Court. While it did not concede that the Act was unconstitutional, it did nothing to impede, obstruct, or delay the plaintiffs' challenge. To the contrary, the County Board stipulated to many facts, simplifying the trial and reducing the plaintiffs' costs. Doc. 123.

         Despite receiving notice of the litigation as required by state law, Doc. 31-2, the North Carolina Attorney General did not make an appearance to defend the Act. Legislative leaders possessing the statutory right to intervene, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.2 (West, Westlaw through 2017 Regular Session), were also aware of the litigation and took no steps to defend the Act in court. See Doc. 134 at 137-39. The primary legislative sponsor of the Act invoked legislative privilege and refused to be deposed. See Doc. 125.

         The Court allowed a group of individual citizens to intervene to defend the Act. Doc. 53. The defendant-intervenors moved to dismiss this case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(7), contending that the plaintiffs had failed to join necessary parties-namely, the State of North Carolina, the State Board of Elections, the State Board's executive director, and Governor Patrick McCrory. Doc. 61. In the alternative, the defendant-intervenors asked the Court to join these same entities and persons as necessary parties. Id. The plaintiffs objected, contending that all were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that none were necessary for the relief sought. Doc. 63 at 10-19. The County Board filed no response to the plaintiffs' motion and took no position on the defendant-intervenors' motion.

         The Court denied the motion, finding that “[w]hile some of these persons and entities might well be proper parties to this lawsuit . . . none are necessary parties.” Doc. 72 at 1. The Court also observed that should permanent relief be granted, there was no reason to think that it could not be obtained from the County Board. Id. at 2-3.

         After discovery closed, and shortly after their response to the plaintiffs' motion for partial judgment on the pleadings was due, the defendant-intervenors moved to withdraw, concluding that there was no defense to the plaintiffs' claims in light of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Raleigh Wake Citizens Ass'n v. Wake Cty. Bd. of Elections, 827 F.3d 333 (4th Cir. 2016) (striking down legislative redistricting of county school board on same arguments presented in this case) (hereinafter “RWCA”). See Doc. 103. This ...

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