Guilford County got word from federal Middle District of North Carolina Judge Catherine Eagles that the county will not be forced to pay attorneys’ fees for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in a 2015 case brought against the Guilford County Board of Elections.

The Southern Coalition’s victory, along with the City of Greensboro in the 2015 case, overturned the State of North Carolina’s redistricting of Greensboro and this week county officials said they were relieved by Eagles’ decision regarding attorneys’ fees and added that any other outcome would have been a travesty of justice.

In the 2015 lawsuit that led to the attempt by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to get reimbursed for attorneys’ fees, the county’s Board of Elections was sued as the body responsible for overseeing Greensboro City Council elections – even though the Elections Board didn’t play any role in redistricting Greensboro or even so much as have a dog in the fight.

In April 2017, in US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Eagles found in favor of Greensboro and the coalition. Three months later, the Southern Coalition filed a request to be reimbursed its attorneys’ fees in that case.

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne and other county officials have argued for months that it made no sense whatsoever for the Guilford County Elections Board to be required to reimburse the legal fees of the Southern Coalition, which fought the state’s attempt to restructure Greensboro government.

But in July 2017, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed suit against the Guilford County Board of Elections to recover just over $600,000 in legal fees and associated costs that the coalition claimed it incurred fighting the state’s redistricting attempt. This summer, when the Southern Coalition filed to collect those legal fees from the county, the move outraged some Guilford County commissioners who said at the time that the attempt to collect fees was “nuts” and “morally reprehensible.”

County officials have stressed for months that it was in no way, shape or form fair to hold Guilford County accountable for attorneys’ costs in a case it wanted nothing to do with, and they say Eagles’ decision is a just one.

That decision, which Eagles handed down on Wednesday, Jan. 3, is a big blow to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which uses victories in lawsuits such as this one as a way to finance its operations. Under the law, there’s a presumption that the losing party in this type of civil rights case – where an unconstitutional law is challenged and overturned – will pay the attorneys fees of the party that brought the suit. The court can override that presumption in cases such as this one where there are superseding concerns. Eagles’ ruling notes that this case is an exceptional one in which the winning party isn’t entitled to be reimbursed those fees by the losing party, despite that legal presumption to the contrary.

In the 2015 redistricting move that this lawsuit later stemmed from, the state changed the number of Greensboro City Council districts from five to eight and eliminated the three at-large council seats – changes that, if they had taken effect, would have made the Greensboro City Council similar to that of Winston-Salem. Guilford County could have asked the state to step in and defend the lawsuit, but, instead, the county chose to mount no defense.

Despite the county’s attempt to remain neutral in the matter, then Southern Coalition for Social Justice Executive Director Anita Earls filed suit for her organization to collect the fees. Earls submitted a request to get reimbursed for her time spent on the case at a rate of $550 per hour. With other attorneys’ fees and additional work, the total funds requested came to over $600,000, an amount the group will now have to absorb in light of Eagle’s decision.

Eagles’ ruling states, “The entity responsible for violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights is not before the Court. Thus, if the Court grants the individual plaintiffs’ motion, the financial effects will fall on the County Board, which neither passed nor defended the Act. On the other hand, if the Court denies the motion, then counsel for the individual plaintiffs will not receive compensation ordinarily authorized by federal law, despite vindicating critical constitutional rights. Neither outcome is just.”

Eagles states in her decision that, since the court was facing two bad options, having the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Executive Director Anita Earls bear its own costs “is the lesser of these two unjust results.”

According to the decision, “The County Board accurately points out that it is, in key ways, an innocent party. The North Carolina General Assembly passed the redistricting law that was deemed unconstitutional, not the County Board. Under North Carolina law, enforcement responsibility for municipal elections, and thus for the unconstitutional Act, is with the County Board, rather than with a state entity… and state law required the County Board to enforce the challenged Act unless it was found to be unlawful.”

The decision pointed out that the Guilford County Board of Elections took the position that that board had “a duty to fairly and impartially administer whatever election laws validly apply and that it had no duty to determine whether a law is constitutional.”

According to Eagles, the Board of Elections wasn’t involved with passing the legislation, offered no evidence or legal arguments in support of it at any point in the process and limited its own participation to simply providing information to the court and complying with the court’s orders.

“While it did not concede that the Act was unconstitutional,” the ruling reads, “it did nothing to impede, obstruct, or delay the plaintiffs’ challenge. To the contrary, the County Board stipulated to many facts, simplifying the trial and reducing the plaintiffs’ costs.”

Eagles emphasized in her decision that Guilford County could have attempted to bring in the state – the responsible party – on the case, but didn’t do so or take any action to challenge the original lawsuit.

The judge wrote, “A different decision—i.e., awarding fees to the individual plaintiffs—would perversely encourage future plaintiffs to avoid suing responsible entities, in favor of defendants unlikely to contest relief. These special circumstances, taken together, call for denial of the motion.”

When the suit to collect attorney’s fees was filed in July, Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning was one of the most vocal critics of the Southern Coalition’s effort to the collect those fees. He called the move pure greed and said that the coalition was trying to “soak the taxpayers,” who Henning said were completely innocent in the matter.

This week, Henning said he was pleased by the ruling in favor of the county.

“I’m relieved that sanity prevailed,” Henning said.

Henning added that it would have been ridiculous to require the county to reimburse the legal fees in a fight it didn’t cause, ask for or want any part of.

“That’s why I was just incredulous about the whole thing,” Henning said.

One thing the county had to overcome in this case is the legal presumption that the prevailing party “should ordinarily recover attorney’s fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.”

The court determined, “While special circumstances are ‘few and far between,’ courts do sometimes find those circumstances that justify denying fees.”

Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said he has informed the county Board of Elections of the favorable decision and he added that it is now just a question of waiting to see if the Southern Coalition files an appeal. He said he’s obviously pleased with Eagles’ decision.

“I’m glad I’ll be done with this completely,” he said.

County Attorney Payne said this week that it’s always worrisome in a case such as this where there’s an initial presumption to overcome by the courts, but Payne added it all boiled down to one key principle.

“The major thing is that we are an innocent party,” Payne said. “We argue with good reason that clearly we didn’t take the action that was being complained about.”

Payne added that Eagles seemed to be swayed by the fact that there would be no positive outcome by making the county pay the coalition’s costs and in fact that would be create a motivation for people to sue non-responsible parties in the future.

The decision states, “An award of attorney’s fees against a defendant who was not responsible and did not defend the act would, in these circumstances, provide a perverse incentive to plaintiffs to avoid suing responsible entities in favor of a non-responsible entity, especially if that entity is unlikely to contest relief.”

The two sides submitted written arguments to the court about two months ago, but they were never asked to make oral arguments. Payne said he was somewhat surprised the court didn’t request oral arguments.

He added that the Southern Coalition has 30 days from the time of Eagles’ ruling to appeal the decision, but he said, if this ruling is upheld at a higher level, it could become precedent in future cases and Payne said that might work against the Southern Coalition in the long run.

Earls is a civil rights attorney who founded the Durham-based nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice in 2007 with a stated mission of fighting against voter discrimination and other types of injustice. The coalition joined with the City of Greensboro to fight the legal battle when the city sued the Board of Elections over the matter. Greensboro made to no attempt to collect attorney’s fees from Guilford County.