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Montgomery v. Anson County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

June 20, 2018



          Graham C. Mullen United States District Judge

         This 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.


         Plaintiff, 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         On 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. 4-5.

         As the 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.


         Under 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 cases).

         Although 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).

         In 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).

         Plaintiffs 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).

         Plaintiff 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 position”).

         With respect to her remaining claim(s), Plaintiff fared no better, because she concededly had no proof whatsoever that any of the Board's ...

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