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Brandon v. Guilford County Board of Elections

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 15, 2019

LEWIS A. BRANDON III; JOYCE JOHNSON; NELSON JOHNSON; RICHARD ALAN KORITZ; SANDRA SELF KORITZ; CHARLI MAE SYKES; MAURICE WARREN II; GEORGEANNA BUTLER WOMACK, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
GUILFORD COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, Defendant-Appellee, and THE CITY OF GREENSBORO, Plaintiff, and MELVIN ALSTON; JEAN BROWN; HURLEY DERRICKSON; STEPHEN GOLIMOWSKI; WAYNE GOODSON; SHARON KASICA; JIM KEE; WILLIAM CLARK PORTER; EARL JONES, Defendants, and ROBERT A. RUCHO; WADE TRUDY; JOHN FAIRCLOTH; JON HARDISTER; CHARLES E. JETER; TIM MOORE; DAVID LEWIS; ERIKA CHURCHILL, Respondents.

          Argued: October 30, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, at Greensboro. Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge. (1:15-cv-00559-CCE-JLW)

         ARGUED:

          Allison J. Riggs, SOUTHERN COALITION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellants.

          J. Mark Payne, GUILFORD COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Jaclyn A. Maffetore, SOUTHERN COALITION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellants.

          Taniya D. Reaves, GUILFORD COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Alan W. Duncan, Stephen M. Russell, Jr., MULLINS DUNCAN HARRELL & RUSSELL, PLLC, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before NIEMEYER, THACKER, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

          NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge.

         After eight voting citizens of Greensboro, North Carolina, ("Citizens") prevailed in an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Guilford County Board of Elections, successfully challenging as unconstitutional a 2015 state law that redrew Greensboro City Council districts and obtaining a permanent injunction against the County Board's enforcement of the law, they filed a motion for attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and 52 U.S.C. § 10310(e). The district court denied their motion, however, concluding that "special circumstances" justified the denial of fees because the County Board, even though responsible for enforcing the unconstitutional law, had no hand in enacting the law and did not defend it during the litigation. The court reasoned that because the County Board was an "innocent" or "non-responsible" party and the Citizens should have sued the State of North Carolina, any award assessed against the County Board would be "unjust."

         The Citizens filed this appeal, arguing that the district court erred in denying their motion based on the County Board's "innocence" or "non-responsibility." The Citizens point out that they were the prevailing party, having succeeded in demonstrating that the redistricting law was unconstitutional and in obtaining full relief with the entry of a permanent injunction prohibiting the County Board's enforcement of the law. They argue that under established precedent, a party enjoined from enforcing an unconstitutional law, even if it did not enact or defend the law, is legally responsible for attorney's fees under § 1988 and § 10310(e). See Indep. Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 763 (1989) (noting that "the party legally responsible for relief on the merits" is "clearly the party who should . . . bear fee liability under § 1988" (emphasis added) (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 164 (1985))).

         We agree with the Citizens. Civil rights fee-shifting statutes, such as those at issue here, are not meant to punish defendants for a lack of innocence or good faith but rather to "compensate civil rights attorneys who bring civil rights cases and win them." Lefemine v. Wideman, 758 F.3d 551, 557 (4th Cir. 2014). "Innocence" or a "lack of responsibility" for the enactment of an unconstitutional law is therefore not an appropriate criterion to justify denying a fee award against the party responsible for and enjoined from enforcing the unconstitutional law. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's order denying the Citizens' motion for attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs and remand for the determination of an appropriate fee award.

         I

         The City of Greensboro and eight of its voting Citizens[*] commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the constitutionality of a state-enacted local law - 2015 N.C. Session Law 138 ("the Redistricting Act") - that (1) changed Greensboro's City Council from three at-large and five single-district members to eight single-district members; (2) drew the boundaries of the eight new districts; and (3) prohibited City Council or citizen-led referendums or initiatives from altering the structure of the City's government. The plaintiffs named the Guilford County Board of Elections as the defendant, as the County Board was responsible for conducting municipal elections in Greensboro and had the duty of enforcing the Redistricting Act, making it a necessary party to any action challenging enforcement of the Act. See Wright v. North Carolina, 787 F.3d 256, 262-63 (4th Cir. 2015). In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the Redistricting Act violated the Equal Protection Clause and sought a permanent injunction against its ...


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