United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
REIDINGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on the Defendants'
Motion for Attorneys' Fees [Doc. 121].
Plaintiffs Peggy Hill and Amy Walker (the
“Plaintiffs”) initiated this citizen suit on
December 3, 2013, against the Defendants Barry Coggins and
Collette Coggins, collectively doing business as Cherokee
Bear Zoo (the “Defendants”), alleging various
violations of Section 11(g)(1)(A) of the Endangered Species
Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g)(1)(A) (“ESA”). This
matter proceeded to a bench trial on September 17 and 18,
2015. On March 30, 2016, the Court entered an Order
containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. [Doc.
93]. Specifically, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs
generally had standing to bring their suit and that the bears
were grizzly bears entitled to protection the ESA.
[Id.]. The Court, however, concluded that the manner
in which the Zoo maintains the bears does not amount to an
unlawful taking under the Act. [Id.]. Accordingly,
the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs' action in all
respects. [Doc. 93].
Plaintiffs and Defendants both appealed. On August 14, 2017,
the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Court's
rulings on the issues of standing and the status of the
subject bears as grizzly bears. Hill, 867 F.3d at
502. The Fourth Circuit concluded, however, that this Court
erred in its legal analysis of the issue of whether the Zoo
is committing an unlawful taking of the bears. Id.
Accordingly, that ruling was vacated, and this matter was
remanded for further proceedings. Id. The United
States Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of
certiorari on February 20, 2018. Hill v. Coggins,
138 S.Ct. 1003 (2018).
September 24, 2019, the Court entered an Order again
dismissing this action with prejudice, concluding that the
Plaintiffs failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence
that the Defendants had committed a “taking” of
an endangered species through their treatment of the bears,
this time applying the standard as set forth by the Court of
Appeals. [Doc. 188 at 37]. The Defendants now seek
attorneys' fees from the Plaintiffs. [Doc. 121].
been fully briefed, this matter is ripe for disposition.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
fees may be awarded where expressly authorized by contract or
statute. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 400 v.
Marval Poultry Co., Inc., 876 F.2d 346, 350 (4th Cir.
1989) (citation omitted). Under the ESA, “[t]he Court,
in issuing any final order . . . may award the costs of
litigation (including attorney and expert witness fees) to
any party, whenever the court determines such award is
appropriate.” 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g)(4).
Defendants argue that they should be awarded attorneys'
fees because the Plaintiffs' claims were
“frivolous, unreasonable, and groundless” and the
Plaintiffs acted in bad faith by bringing this action. [Doc.
122 at 6].
Frivolous, Unreasonable, and Groundless
defendant generally may recover fees if a plaintiff's
claims were “frivolous, unreasonable, or without
foundation” or if the plaintiff “continued to
litigate [them] after [they] clearly became so.”
Christiansburg Garment Co. v. E.E.O.C., 434 U.S.
412, 422 (1978); see also Marbled Murrelet v.
Babbitt, 182 F.3d 1091, 1095 (9th Cir. 1999) (applying
the Christiansburg Garmet test to cases arising
under the ESA). “A claim is frivolous if ‘the
result is obvious or when the [ ] argument is wholly without
merit.'” Soler v. Staffmark East, L.L.C.,
No. 5:05-cv-235-BR, 2007 WL 9718333, at *2 (E.D. N.C. Feb.
23, 2007) (quoting Williams v. U.S. Postal Serv.,
873 F.2d 1069, 1075 (7th Cir. 1989)). A defendant seeking to
show that a plaintiff's claims were frivolous must meet a
“stringent” standard. E.E.O.C. v. Great
Steaks, Inc., 667 F.3d 510, 516 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing
EEOC v. Clay Printing Co., 13 F.3d 813, 817 (4th
to this case, the “generally accepted” animal
husbandry practices under the ESA were unclear. The
Plaintiffs argued that the Court should adopt the
Accreditation Standards established by the Association of
Zoos and Aquariums (“AZA”) as the
“generally accepted” animal husbandry practices,
even though fewer than 10% of all license exhibitors in the
United States utilized those ...