United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
C. Mullen United States District Judge
matter is before the Court upon Defendant's Motion for
Attorney's Fees, filed March 29, 2018. This motion has
been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
then a career teacher employed by the Defendant Board, filed
suit against the Board in June of 2016 asserting claims for
alleged violation of her First Amendment rights and
discriminatory failure to promote on the basis of her race
and age. (Doc. No. 1). Following dismissal of her First
Amendment claim, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint (Doc.
No. 14), which asserted in sweeping terms that the Board had
passed her over for a series of promotions on more than a
dozen occasions, usually in favor of younger and/or white
candidates, but identified only three specific promotions she
sought but did not receive in 2014. From the outset of
discovery in this matter, Plaintiff has been indifferent at
best to the obligations she undertook as a litigant, the
requirements of the Rules of Civil Procedure, and the
instructions of this Court.
took no depositions and served only one set of written
discovery in the Board. When Plaintiff finally produced
complete responses to the Board's discovery requests, it
became even more clear that she would be able to adduce no
evidence of discriminatory failure to promote. Plaintiff
submitted no affidavits, and pointed to no documents
suggesting, let alone establishing, that her age or race
played any part in any of the challenged promotion decisions.
In fact, Plaintiff admitted under oath that she was
unqualified for (at least) the first of the three promotions
she cited because she lacked a principal licensure.
See Montgomery Deposition, Doc. No. 61-1 pp. 45-47,
50-51, 57-59, 66-67, 81. As to the other two promotions,
Plaintiff came forward with no evidence whatsoever to dispute
the Affidavit of Superintendent Michael Freeman that, for
both promotions, he considered Ms. Montgomery's
application but ultimately recommended the candidates that he
determined to be the most qualified. The Superintendent's
Affidavit affirmed that he did not make any of the challenged
promotion decisions on the basis of Ms. Montgomery's age
or race. See Affidavit of Michael H. Freeman, Doc.
No. 59, ¶¶ 16-17, 20-23.
January 30, 2018, the Board moved for summary judgment on
Plaintiff's discrimination claims. (Doc. Nos. 60, 61). In
an Order dated March 19, 2018 this Court granted the
Board's Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed
Plaintiff's claims in their entirety. (Doc. No. 68). The
Court found that Plaintiff had “adduced no direct
evidence of discrimination in the Board's promotion
decision[s].” Id. at p. 4. Given
Plaintiff's concession that she was unqualified for the
first of the three challenged promotion decisions
(id.) and the Board's articulation of a
legitimate, non-discriminatory reason-the superior
qualifications of other candidates- for the other two, the
burden rested with Plaintiff to come forward with affirmative
evidence of discrimination. She had none. Id. at pp.
Court's March 19 Order noted, Ms. Montgomery failed to
adduce any evidence of discrimination in the Board's
promotion decisions but instead offered only her own
“positive self-assessment, ” coupled with her
wholly “subjective and speculative belief that she was
discriminated against.” Id. pp. 5-6. The Court
accordingly granted summary judgment to the Board.
42 U.S.C. § 1988, “[i]n 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). 42 U.S.C. §
2000e-5(k) is to similar effect: “In any action or
proceeding under this subchapter [42 USCS §§ 2000e
et seq.] the court, in its discretion, may allow the
prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United
States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert
fees) as part of the costs . . . .” The Fourth Circuit
has confirmed that “[t]he standard for granting
attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 is identical
to that under Title VII.” Martin v. Cavalier Hotel
Corp., 48 F.3d 1343, 1359 n.10 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing
the statutory language is facially neutral between plaintiffs
and defendants, the Supreme Court has clarified that
prevailing defendants should receive attorneys' fees only
when the 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); see also, e.g.,
Introcaso v. Cunningham, 857 F.2d 965, 967 (4th Cir.
1988). Christiansburg's distinction between
plaintiffs and defendants arises out of a concern for
chilling potentially meritorious civil rights claims.
However, “[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) (reversing
district court's denial of fees).
addition to its statutory authority for awarding fees, the
Court may assess attorneys' fees under its inherent
authority. The Court properly exercises its inherent
authority to assess fees when a party or an attorney has
acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive
reasons. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32,
45 (1991). “The bad faith exception for the award of
attorneys' fees is not restricted to cases where the
action is filed in bad faith. [B]ad faith may be found, not
only in the actions that led to the lawsuit, but also in the
conduct of the litigation.” Roadway Express, Inc.
v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 766 (1980).
and their attorneys are obligated to confirm that sufficient
factual bases for a claim exist before filing a lawsuit.
Plaintiff's initial attempt barely survived dismissal:
This Court dismissed her First Amendment claim altogether and
allowed her to file an Amended Complaint to add the necessary
specificity to her sweeping claims of discrimination. (Doc.
No. 13). In response, Plaintiff pointed to three principal or
assistant principal promotions for which she applied but was
not selected in 2014 (Doc. No. 14 ¶¶ 14- 16).
and her counsel should have acknowledged that her claims were
groundless from the outset-particularly as to the
promotion(s) for which Plaintiff herself conceded she was
unqualified. Indeed, in her deposition in May 2017 Plaintiff
conceded under oath that she was flatly unqualified for the
first of the three positions she identified in her Amended
Complaint, and she even conceded that she had not met the
qualifications at the time she applied for the second. (Doc.
No. 61-1, pp. 57-59); see also id. pp. 66-67
(conceding that she was not qualified for the Anson County
Early College Principal or Anson High School Assistant
Principal positions); id. p. 81 (admitting that
“for the positions prior to 2014, ” Plaintiff did
not “know if [she was] actually qualified for the
respect to her remaining claim(s), Plaintiff fared no better,
because she concededly had no proof whatsoever that any of
the Board's ...