The US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a decision by the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina and now Guilford County is liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees from a case that the county really had nothing to do with.

In January 2018, federal Middle District of North Carolina Judge Catherine Eagles ruled that Guilford County would not be forced to pay over $600,000 in attorneys’ fees to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice for a 2015 case brought against the Guilford County Board of Elections.  Now that decision has been reversed and the county will have to pay some of that money – though exactly how much is still to be determined.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said on Tuesday, Aug 6 that he was irate and astounded at the decision by the Fourth Circuit court.  He said the decision is utterly absurd.

It’s bull [deleted]” he said.

“This is the biggest bunch of horse manure I’ve ever seen in my life,” Branson said a moment later – changing the analogy slightly but making the same point.

The decision was actually handed down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in mid-April but the only discussion about the matter until now has been in closed session meetings of the commissioners.

A clerk with the Fourth Circuit Court confirmed that the decision was recorded on Monday, April 15.  Despite that, there has been no public mention of the case until now.

One reason it may be coming to light now is that the commissioners must decide whether or not to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court.

“I told them to take it to the highest court in the land,” Branson said of his comments in one recent closed session meeting held to discuss the case.

He added, however, that the Board of Commissioners is going to have to weigh the cost of an appeal against the amount that will be awarded in the end.

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 at the time, and county officials were relieved by Eagles’ decision not to award attorneys’ fees.  Several commissioners said then that any other outcome would have been a travesty of justice.

In the 2015 lawsuit that led to the Southern Coalition’s request 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 whatsoever in redistricting Greensboro – or even so much as have a dog in that fight.

In April 2017, in federal court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Eagles found in favor of Greensboro and the coalition. Three months later, the Southern Coalition filed its request to be reimbursed its attorneys’ fees, but that request wasn’t granted.

The Fourth Circuit did rule that some fees associated with the case will not be allowable but the exact amount that will be owed by Guilford County is yet to be determined.  The size of that amount may determine whether or not Guilford County appeals the case to the US Supreme Court.

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne and other county officials argued in 2017 that it made zero sense for the Guilford County Elections Board to be required to reimburse the legal fees of the Southern Coalition in fighting the state’s attempt to draw new City Council districts for Greensboro.

However, in July 2017, the Southern Coalition filed its 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 challenging the state’s redistricting attempt.  When the Southern Coalition filed to collect those fees from the county, the move then – as it still does today more than ever – outraged some Guilford County commissioners who said at the time that the attempt to collect fees was “nuts” and “morally reprehensible.”

Before the reversal by the Fourth Circuit court, that decision Eagles handed down – denying the Southern Coalition the ability to collect for attorney’s fees – was considered a big blow to the Southern Coalition, 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 were superseding concerns.  The ruling by Eagles noted that this case was 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 overturning that decision, the Fourth Circuit court found: “At bottom, we conclude that the district court abused its narrowly circumscribed discretion in holding that ‘special circumstances’ existed in this case. We therefore reverse the district court’s order and remand for a determination of a reasonable fee award.”

In the 2015 redistricting move that this lawsuit stemmed from, the state changed the number of Greensboro City Council districts from five to eight and eliminating 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 legal defense.

Despite the county’s attempt to remain neutral at the time, the Southern Coalition submitted the request to get reimbursed for time spent on the case, largely at a rate of $550 per hour for a total that came to over $600,000.

Eagles’ initial ruling stated, “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.”

Eagle’s 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.”

The Guilford County Board of Elections, she noted, 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.

Eagles wrote in her ruling, “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.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals clearly does not see it that way.