Hutchinson v. Staton, s. 92-2250

Decision Date24 May 1993
Docket NumberNos. 92-2250,92-2372,92-2371,92-2370,s. 92-2250
PartiesJohn HUTCHINSON; William Reese; Leonard Underwood, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. David Michael STATON, Defendant-Appellant, and Margaret D. Miller, Individually and as Clerk of the County Commission of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Steven L. Miller; James E. Roark, Individually and as Prosecuting Attorney of Kanawha County, West Virginia; John A. Cavacini, Jr.; Henry C. Shores, as Commissioner of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Robert F. Silverstein, as Commissioner of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Computer Election Systems, a foreign corporation; Bernard H. Meadows; Clayton Spangler; Irvine Keith Long; Carl Clough; Cherrie Lloyd; William E. Biebel; Darlene Dotson; Carolyn Critchfield, Individually and as Voter Registrar of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Ann Carroll, Individually and as Chief Deputy of the County Commission of Kanawha County, West Virginia, Defendants. John HUTCHINSON; William Reese; Leonard Underwood, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. James E. ROARK, Individually and as Prosecuting Attorney of Kanawha County, West Virginia, Defendant-Appellant, and Margaret D. Miller, Individually and as Clerk of the County Commission of Kanawha County, West Virginia; David Michael Staton; Steven L. Miller; John A. Cavacini, Jr.; Henry C. Shores, as Commissioner of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Robert F. Silverstein, as Commissioner of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Computer Election Systems, Incorporated, a foreign corporation; Bernard H. Meadows; Clayton Spangler; Irvine Keith Long; Carl Clough; Cherrie Lloyd; William E. Biebel; Darlene Dotson; Carolyn Critchfield, Individually and as Voter Registrar of Kanawha County, West Virginia; Ann Carroll, Individually and as Chief Deputy of the County Commission of Kanawha County, West Virginia, Defendants. John HUTCHINSON; William Reese; Leonard Underwood, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. COMPUTER ELECTION SYSTEMS, a foreign corporation; Irvine Keith Long; Carl Clough; William E. Biebel, Defendant-Appellant, and Margaret D. Miller, Individu
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

David Dale Johnson, III, Spilman, Thomas, Battle & Klostermeyer (Charles I. Jones, Jr., Campbell, Woods, Bagley, Emerson, McNeil & Herndon, on brief), Charleston, WV, for defendants-appellants Miller.

William E. Mohler, on brief, Charleston, WV, for defendant-appellant Staton.

James B. McIntyre, on brief, Charleston, WV, for defendant-appellant Roark.

Jack Older Friedman, Sr. (John R. Mitchell, Sr., on brief), Charleston, WV, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, and PHILLIPS and WILKINSON, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

Defendants in this case appeal the district court's decision to withdraw its earlier award of attorneys' fees to defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Finding that fees should have been awarded to defendants in this action, we reverse the district court and remand with instructions that the court reinstate its original award of fees.

I.

Plaintiffs John Hutchinson, Leonard Underwood, and William Reese were unsuccessful candidates for federal, state, and local office, respectively, in the 1980 general election in West Virginia. In February 1983, plaintiffs sued a number of parties in federal court, alleging that these parties had worked individually and collectively to fix the general election in Kanawha and Boone Counties, West Virginia. Named as defendants were David Staton, the candidate who defeated the incumbent Hutchinson in the race for Congress; Computer Election Systems, Inc., the computer company that provided the vote tabulation system for the election; CES employees who helped operate the vote tabulation system on election night; local officials who were responsible for conducting the election; and private citizens who were active in local politics. Plaintiffs asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 18 U.S.C. § 1964 (RICO), and the common law of West Virginia.

Initially, the district court ordered plaintiffs to provide more detailed allegations in their complaint. Defendants then moved to dismiss. The court dismissed one of the CES employees. As to the remaining defendants, the court ruled that the limitations period had expired for their alleged individual acts, and limited plaintiffs' complaint to the claim of conspiracy. The court remarked that even this portion of plaintiffs' complaint barely survived dismissal.

Following extensive discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. The court granted summary judgment to three more of the individual defendants, and ruled that the claim of a Boone County conspiracy was time-barred. The case then went to trial, which lasted fifteen days. During trial, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed two defendants who were Commissioners of Kanawha County. At the close of plaintiffs' evidence, the court directed verdicts for all of the remaining defendants, finding that the only evidence of election-rigging was "purely speculative" and "mere suspicion."

Plaintiffs appealed to this court; we affirmed. Hutchinson v. Miller, 797 F.2d 1279 (4th Cir.1986). We ruled that the federal courts were not available for damages claims by defeated candidates, because adjudicating such claims would put federal courts in the illegitimate role of second-guessing the outcome of elections properly committed to the control of the states. Id. at 1285-87. We recognized that the federal courts had taken an active role in protecting the state electoral process from class-based discrimination and improper restrictions on the franchise. Id. at 1283. Plaintiffs' complaint raised no such issues, however, and so we held that they had failed to state a federal claim.

Defendants then moved in the district court for attorneys' fees, invoking their status as "prevailing parties" under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court ruled that plaintiffs' complaint was "frivolous, groundless, and unreasonable" under Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978). Accordingly, the court ordered plaintiffs to pay defendants' fees.

In so ruling, the district court carefully analyzed plaintiffs' legal claim, the evidence adduced in support of that claim, and when plaintiffs should have realized that the claim was groundless. The court ruled first that plaintiffs' claim was not legally frivolous when filed. Prior to our ruling in Hutchinson, the law regarding election fraud claims was murky. Some pre-Hutchinson case law suggested that large-scale election fraud conspiracies were actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, although in none of these cases was a defeated candidate seeking damages. Only in Hutchinson did we lay down the bright-line rule that defeated election candidates could not bring § 1983 claims for damages. The district court thus found that plaintiffs might reasonably have surmised, at the time of their suit, that they had a valid legal claim.

The district court found otherwise, however, as to the facts supporting that claim. Plaintiffs' theory, greatly condensed, was that a cabal of private citizens and local election officials had hired Computer Election Systems to design a riggable vote tabulation system. Plaintiffs provided nothing to support this hypothesis, however, except evidence of motive and opportunity. As to defendant Staton, for instance, plaintiffs established only that he had won the election, and thus had benefitted from the alleged fraud. As to CES, plaintiffs established that one of the CES employees operating the vote tabulation system on election night was seen putting a telephone receiver in his brief-case; plaintiffs suggested that he might have had a portable modem in his briefcase, which he was using to manipulate the vote count. As to Margaret Miller, the local official who was allegedly the conspiracy's ringleader and who hired CES, plaintiffs established that she was seen flipping computer toggle switches during the election count, and that her husband was seen handing her computer cards from his pocket. And as to defendant James Roark, an election observer and the Prosecuting Attorney of Kanawha County, plaintiffs established only that some unofficial precinct tabulations bearing his handwriting were circulated after the...

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