United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
COGBURN, UNITED STALES DISTRICT JUDGE.
MATTER is before the court on the defendants'
Joint Motion for Attorneys' Fees. A motion hearing was
held on March 6, 2018. Having considered defendants'
motion and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the
is a career teacher for the McDowell County Board of
Education who was investigated and disciplined in 2013 for
engaging in inappropriate behavior with students, including
making a sexual comment in class and posting about a
pedophilia-advocacy organization on a student's Facebook
page. In 2014, Plaintiff filed this action, alleging that
defendants violated his civil rights by retaliating against
him for his political activities. Plaintiff's theory was
that defendant Gillespie, a local politician, disliked
plaintiff for his political activities and conspired against
him with others. Essentially, plaintiff claims Gillespie
enlisted his co-defendant Neighbors to use his position on
the McDowell County Board of Education to pressure
superintendent and co-defendant Martin to persuade school
principal and co-defendant Gouge to, in turn, pressure
students to lie about plaintiff during the investigation.
the course of this lawsuit, plaintiff has relentlessly
attempted to uncover any possible hint of a conspiracy
against him. Plaintiff amended his original complaint to
include the allegations against co-defendant Neighbors, as
well as allegations that various board members had confessed
to the conspiracy and that emails existed that proved it.
Plaintiff further propounded dozens of production requests,
which led to review of at least 250, 000 electronic
documents. Plaintiff also conducted ten depositions.
Ultimately, all of plaintiff's efforts proved fruitless,
and when defendants conducted a deposition of plaintiff,
plaintiff stated that he had no evidence to support his
claims, and that the basis for his allegations was rumors or
pure speculation of his own. As a result, defendants sent
multiple “safe harbor” letters to plaintiff
asking him to dismiss his case. The letters noted that if
plaintiff did drop his claims, defendants would not seek an
award of fees, but if plaintiff chose to proceed, defendants
would pursue fees. Plaintiff ignored the safe harbor letters,
the case proceeded to summary judgment, and this court
granted defendants' summary judgment motions and
dismissed plaintiff's lawsuit. On appeal, the Fourth
Circuit affirmed, finding plaintiff lacked even a
“scintilla of evidence” to support his claims.
now seek an award of attorneys' fees, citing the cost and
expense incurred as they responded to plaintiff's
sweeping discovery requests. While defendants also cite the
emotional toll they suffered as plaintiff's allegations
became known throughout their community, those issues are not
relevant to the instant inquiry and have not been considered.
Standard of Review
any action or proceeding to enforce [42 U.S.C. § 1983],
the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party,
other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee
as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). While
this provision is facially neutral, the Supreme Court has
held that prevailing defendants should receive an award of
fees only when plaintiff's claim was “frivolous,
unreasonable, or groundless, ” or when “the
plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became
so.” Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434
U.S. 412, 422 (1978). While this standard was established in
relation to claims under Title VII, there is “no reason
for applying a less stringent standard” to claims
brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Hughes v. Rowe,
449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980). Imposing a higher standard on
prevailing defendants arises from a desire to avoid a
chilling effect on potentially meritorious claims, but
“[w]hen a court imposes fees on a plaintiff who has
pressed a ‘frivolous' claim, it chills nothing that
is worth encouraging.” Hutchinson v. Staton,
994 F.2d 1076, 1081 (4th Cir. 1993).
a claim is considered frivolous if it lacks a factual basis.
Id. at 1080 (holding that a district court's
original award of fees was proper when “the court
demonstrated that plaintiffs' § 1983 claim had no
basis in fact”); cf. E.E.O.C. v. Great Steaks,
Inc., 667 F.3d 510, 519 (4th Cir. 2012)
(where the court found that the plaintiff's case was not
frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless since it “had a
factual and legal basis from start to finish”). A lack
of legal basis does not by itself signify a frivolous claim,
as this court's predecessor noted that “novel,
inventive legal theories” can potentially form the
basis for a non-frivolous claim, particularly in a
fact-intensive matter. Young v. Annarino, 123
F.Supp.2d 943, 944 (W.D. N.C. 2000). A claim may be frivolous
even if it survived a motion to dismiss, as “[a]lthough
in some instances a frivolous case will be quickly revealed
as such, it may sometimes be necessary for defendants to
‘blow away the smoke screens the plaintiffs ha[ve]
thrown up' before the defendants may prevail.”
Introcaso v. Cunningham, 857 F.2d 965, 967
(4th Cir. 1988) (quoting Hicks v. Southern
Maryland Health Systems Agency, 805 F.2d 1165, 1168
(4th Cir. 1986)); see also Spence v. Eastern
Airlines, Inc., 547 F.Supp. 204 (S.D.N.Y. 1982)
(awarding fees under § 1988 to defendant who won
directed verdict at close of plaintiff's evidence).
Moreover, a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case which
is sufficient to survive a directed verdict “but which
is nonetheless groundless in light of a defense readily
apparent to the plaintiff from the outset of the
litigation.” Id. Finally, if a district court
finds a claim is frivolous, the district court has
“allayed any concern that § 1983 claims would be
chilled” and need not give further weight to chilling
effects on potential litigation. Hutchinson, 994
F.2d at 1081.
addition to statutory authorization, the court may also
assess attorneys' fees under its inherent authority,
which may be exercised to assess fees when a party or an
attorney has “acted in bad faith, vexatiously,
wantonly, or for oppressive reasons.” Chambers v.
NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 45 (internal citations and
quotations omitted). The bad faith exception is not limited
merely to cases where the action is filed in bad faith, but
may also be found “in the conduct of the
litigation.” Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper,
447 U.S. 752, 766 (1980).
award of legal fees is warranted, the court undertakes a
two-step analysis to determine the award. See Chaplin v.
Du Pont Advance Fiber Sys., 303 F.Supp.2d 766, 775
(E.D.Va. 2004). First, the court must ascertain what
constitutes a reasonable fee for the services performed on
the matter, and accomplishes this by multiplying the number
of hours reasonably expended on the case by the reasonable or
customary hourly rate and then adjusting it based on the
twelve Johnson factors. See Arnold v. Burger
King Corp., 719 F.2d 63, 67 (4th Cir. 1983);
Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express Inc., 488 F.2d
714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974). Second, when this
amount has been established, the court may adjust the amount
in light of mitigating factors, including plaintiff's
ability to pay. Chaplin, 303 F.Supp.2d at 778. If
plaintiff can afford to pay, “the congressional goal of
discouraging frivolous suits weighs heavily in favor of
levying the full fees.” Arnold, 719 F.2d at 68
(citing Faraci v. Hickey-Freeman Co., 607 F.2d 1025,
1028 (2d Cir. 1979)).
plaintiff is of modest means, he is not absolved of
responsibility for filing a frivolous claim.
Chaplin, 303 F.Supp.2d at 778 (citing Bass v.
E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 767
(4th Cir. 2003)); see also Cherry v. Champion
International Corp., 186 F.3d 442 (4th Cir.
1999) (finding that “plaintiff's good faith, modest
means, comparative lack of economic power, and the important
public interest served by encouraging others in similar
circumstances to pursue colorable Title VII claims” are
not valid reasons to deny a prevailing defendant fees).
However, forcing a plaintiff “into financial ruin
simply because he prosecuted a groundless case” does
not aid deterrence efforts. Arnold, 719 F.2d at 68
(citing Faraci, 607 F.2d at 1028); see also
Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422 (holding that fee awards
that disregard a losing plaintiff's financial straits
would soon defeat the overarching remedial purposes of Title
VII by discouraging all but the most airtight cases). As
such, the court must balance these factors when assessing the
amount of an award. McGlothlin v. Murray, 54
F.Supp.2d 629, 634 (W.D. Va. 1999) (“the amount of the
award must reflect the reality of plaintiff's . . .
ability to pay, while still making him realize that frivolous
litigation has its costs”).
court has considered defendants' motion (#102) and the
statements made at the March 6, 2018 hearing. The court
reiterates its finding in a previous Order (#114) that this
lawsuit is frivolous and merits an award of fees to
defendants. Plaintiff's claims were based solely on rumor
and speculation. Extensive discovery efforts did nothing to
change this, and indeed only highlighted the lack of a
factual basis for any of plaintiff's claims. It is highly
distinct from fact-intensive cases of the sort where this
court has previously denied an award of fees, and neither is
it based on inventive or novel legal theories.
Young, 123 F.Supp.2d at 944. Even after the
frivolity of plaintiff's claims became abundantly clear
to each side, plaintiff refused to withdraw his suit despite
safe harbor letters from defendants and their counsel. By
continuing to litigate past that point, even if
plaintiff's allegations originally had any semblance of
merit, plaintiff crossed the line into maintaining a
frivolous lawsuit. Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422.
The fact that plaintiff's claim survived an initial
motion to dismiss does not change this court's finding.
Introcaso, 857 F.2d at 967. Finally, the Fourth
Circuit's de novo review of ...