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Hill v. Coggins

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division

January 9, 2020

PEGGY HILL and AMY WALKER, Plaintiffs,
v.
BARRY COGGINS and COLLETTE COGGINS d/b/a CHEROKEE BEAR ZOO, and COGGINS & COGGINS, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          MARTIN REIDINGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion for Attorneys' Fees [Doc. 121].

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The 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].

         The 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).

         On 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].

         Having been fully briefed, this matter is ripe for disposition.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Attorneys' 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The 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].

         A. Frivolous, Unreasonable, and Groundless

         A 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 Cir. 1994).

         Prior 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 ...


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