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Howard v. Augusta-Richmond County

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

November 10, 2014

HENRY D. HOWARD, EARNEST G. SMITH, GLORIA FRAZIER, THOMAS WALKER, KENNETH MARTIN, MELVIN IVEY, and ALBERT ROBINSON, JR., Plaintiffs,
v.
AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY, GEORGIA, COMMISSION; DEKE S. COPENHAVER, in his official capacity as Mayor of Augusta-Richmond County; and LYNN BAILEY, in her official capacity as Executive Director of the Richmond County Board of Elections, Defendants.

ORDER

J. RANDAL HALL, District Judge.

On May 13, 2014, this Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss, holding that Plaintiffs could not state a cognizable claim for relief under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Now before the Court is Defendants' motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 19731(e), and 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which the Court hereby GRANTS.

I. BACKGROUND

On April 18, 2014, Plaintiffs filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1973j to enforce rights under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973c. Specifically, Plaintiffs sought to enjoin Defendants Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia, Commission ("County Commission"), Deke S. Copenhaver, in his official capacity as Mayor of Augusta-Richmond County, and Lynn Bailey, in her official capacity as Executive Director of the Richmond County Board of Elections (collectively, "Defendants"), from holding elections for Mayor and the County Commission on May 20, 2014.

In 2011, the Georgia General Assembly amended O.C.G.A. § 21-2-139(a) to move all federal, state, and county nonpartisan elections to the date of the general primary. (Compl. ¶ 17.) However, this amendment permitted municipalities to follow their charter provisions regarding election dates. (Id.) Augusta-Richmond County is a consolidated government and determined that under its charter it was more appropriate to follow the municipal election rules. (Id.) Thus, it held the 2012 elections at the time of the November general election, and not at the time of the primary. (Id.)

In 2012, the General Assembly enacted Act No. 719, which amended O.C.G.A. § 21-2-139(a) to provide that all consolidated governments holding nonpartisan elections should be treated as counties for election purposes, so that elections would be held in conjunction with the state primaries. (Id. ¶ 18.) This resulted in changing the date of the - elections for the County Commission and Mayor from November to July. (Id.) At the time, Augusta-Richmond County was the only consolidated government in Georgia to hold elections for nonpartisan offices in November. (Id.) Georgia submitted Act No. 719 to the Department of Justice ("DOJ") for preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (Id. ¶ 19.) Citing statistics showing minorities are less likely to vote in July than in November, the DOJ entered an objection on December 21, 2012. (Id.) Georgia did not seek judicial preclearance of Act No. 719 at that time. (Id.)

On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided Shelby County, Ala, v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013). The Georgia General Assembly then adopted Act No. 343, moving the statewide primary and nonpartisan elections from July to May. (Compl. ¶ 23.) Subsequently, qualifying for the May 20, 2014 election was held on March 3-7, 2014, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(c). (Doc. no. 17, Ex. 1 at 2.) Nineteen candidates qualified for the five County Commission seats and Mayor's race. (Id.) Absentee voting began on April 4, 2014. (Id. at 3.)

On April 18, 2014, forty-two days following the close of qualifying and two weeks following the commencement of absentee voting, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint to enjoin the May 20, 2014 elections. (Doc. no. 1.) A few days later on April 21, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their motion for appointment of a three-judge court. (Doc. no. 4.) On April 22, 2014, this Court entered an Order setting an expedited briefing schedule. (Doc. no. 7.) That same day, Plaintiffs filed their motion for preliminary injunction. (Doc. no. 8.) Defendants timely filed their motion to dismiss (doc. no. 17), response in opposition to Plaintiffs' motions for appointment of a three-judge court (doc. no. 18), and response in opposition to the preliminary injunction (doc. no. 19) on April 30, 2014. After full briefing on the issues, the Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss, denied Plaintiffs' motion for appointment of a three-judge court, and denied as moot Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

On June 24, 2014, Defendants' submitted their motion for reasonable attorneys' fees, to which Plaintiffs responded on July 7, 2014. (Docs. no. 26, 27.) Having been fully briefed on the issues, the Court now issues its ruling on the motion for reasonable attorneys' fees.

II. DISCUSSION

In addressing Defendants' motion, the Court engages in a two part inquiry. First, the Court addresses whether attorneys' fees are appropriate and then, because it finds attorneys' fees are warranted, it addresses the reasonableness of the fees requested.

A. Appropriateness of an Award of Attorneys' Fees

Plaintiffs raised claims under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. 1973j, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 19731(e) of the Voting Rights Act allows courts to award reasonable attorneys' fees to prevailing parties in actions brought under the voting guarantees of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 allows prevailing parties to seek attorneys' fees in actions under Section 1983. The standards of the two statutes are the same, and thus the Court addresses them together. See Dillard v. City of Greensboro, 213 F.3d 1347, 1353 (11th Cir. 2000). While all a plaintiff must show to receive an award of attorneys' fees under these statutes is that he is a "prevailing party", given the "quite different equitable considerations" at stake, fee awards to prevailing defendants are judged under a different standard. Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2213 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, a district court may award attorneys' fees to prevailing defendants only "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." Id . (quoting Christianburg Garment Co. v. Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978). Therefore, to determine whether attorneys' fees are appropriate in the above-captioned matter, the Court must address whether Defendants were prevailing parties and next whether the action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.

i. Defendants Were "Prevailing Parties."

A defendant is a prevailing party if the plaintiff achieves none of the benefits sought in bringing its lawsuit." Pickett v. Iowa Beef Processors, 149 F.Appx. 831, 832 (11th Cir. 2005). Here, Defendants' motion to dismiss was granted, and the Plaintiffs' claims ...


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