Nye v. Katsilometes, 082619 IDSCCI, 45917

Docket Nº:45917
Opinion Judge:MOELLER, JUSTICE
Party Name:W. MARCUS W. NYE, an individual, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. TOM KATSILOMETES, an individual, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:J. Kahle Becker, Boise, for appellant. J. Kahle Becker argued. Ruchti & Beck Law Offices, Pocatello, for respondent. James D. Ruchti argued.
Judge Panel:Justices BEVAN, STEGNER, and Justice Pro Tem KIDWELL CONCUR. BURDICK, C.J., dissenting.
Case Date:August 26, 2019
Court:Supreme Court of Idaho
 
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W. MARCUS W. NYE, an individual, Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

TOM KATSILOMETES, an individual, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 45917

Supreme Court of Idaho

August 26, 2019

Appeal from the District Court of the Sixth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bannock County. Hon. Robert C. Naftz, District Judge.

The judgment of the district court is reversed and the award of costs, attorney fees, and prejudgment interest to Nye is vacated.

J. Kahle Becker, Boise, for appellant. J. Kahle Becker argued.

Ruchti & Beck Law Offices, Pocatello, for respondent. James D. Ruchti argued.

MOELLER, JUSTICE

I. NATURE OF THE CASE

In an appeal arising out of Bannock County, Tom Katsilometes challenges the Idaho Senate's order granting over $18, 000 in attorney fees to Senator W. Marcus W. Nye, awarded after Nye prevailed against Katsilometes in a contest over the results of the 2016 general election. The Senate confirmed Nye's election and awarded him costs and attorney fees. Because Katsilometes refused to pay the attorney fees, Nye brought an action in district court seeking a declaratory judgment ordering Katsilometes to pay him the amount ordered by the Senate. The district court granted the declaratory judgment and further awarded Nye costs, attorney fees, and prejudgment interest. For the reasons stated below, we reverse the district court's judgment upholding the Senate's award of attorney fees, and vacate the award of costs, attorney fees, and prejudgment interest.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Nye and Katsilometes were opponents in the 2016 general election for the Idaho Senate seat in District 29. After Nye defeated Katsilometes in the election, Katsilometes challenged the election results by filing a Verified Complaint for Contest of Election with the Idaho Senate. The basis for the contest was Katsilometes' allegation that Nye had violated a provision of Idaho Code section 67-6603, one of the so-called "Sunshine Laws" that regulate election campaign contributions and expenditures. In response, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate issued an order entitled "Procedural Order for Contest of Election," outlining the course of proceedings and referring the matter to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Following hearings before the State Affairs Committee on January 16 and January 23, 2017, the Committee presented its findings to the Senate as a whole on January 24, 2017. The Senate voted on January 25, 2017, to adopt the Committee's recommendations that the Senate uphold Nye's election and order Katsilometes to pay Nye's witness fees and costs of discovery. Additionally, the Senate Journal reflects that the Senate separately approved a motion adopting the recommendations and findings1 of the Committee that (1) Katsilometes' petition contesting the election was "brought and pursued frivolously, unreasonably, and without factual or legal foundation" and (2) Katsilometes be ordered to pay attorney fees in the amount of $18, 060.00. In so ordering, the Senate cited Article III, section 9 of the Idaho Constitution as its authority.

Katsilometes paid Nye the amount owed for the witness fees and discovery costs but did not pay the amount owed for the attorney fees. Subsequently, to assist him in collecting on the Senate's attorney fees order, Nye brought an action in district court seeking a declaratory judgment ordering Katsilometes to pay the attorney fees that had been awarded by the Senate. Following cross motions for summary judgment, the district court granted Nye's motion for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment action and entered judgment against Katsilometes for the $18, 060.00 in attorney fees the Senate had awarded Nye. In so doing, the district court determined the Senate was acting within its authority pursuant to Article III, section 9 of the Idaho Constitution when it awarded Nye his attorney fees following Katsilometes' failed election contest. The district court concluded that it could not intrude on such an exercise of discretion from another branch of government.

Following the district court's entry of judgment, Nye moved for an amended judgment awarding him prejudgment interest, costs, and attorney fees incurred in his declaratory judgment action. The district court granted Nye's motion and awarded costs as a matter of right, denied awarding discretionary costs, and awarded attorney fees pursuant to Idaho Code section 12-120(1). The district court also awarded prejudgment interest from the date the Senate ordered attorney fees until the date the district court entered its judgment in the case. The district court entered an amended judgment and awarded Nye a total of $35, 372.28. Katsilometes timely appealed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"Both constitutional questions and questions of statutory interpretation are questions of law over which this Court exercises free review." Stuart v. State, 149 Idaho 35, 40, 232 P.3d 813, 818 (2010). When the Court considers such questions in the context of a summary judgment order, it reviews the record de novo, applying the familiar standards set forth in I.R.C.P. 56: [T]he standard of review for this Court is the same standard used by the district court in ruling on the motion. The court must grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, affidavits, and discovery documents on file with the court, read in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrate no material issue of fact such that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. If the evidence reveals no genuine issue as to any material fact, then all that remains is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review.

Lee v. Willow Creek Ranch Estates No. 2 Subdivision Homeowners' Ass'n, Inc., 164 Idaho 396, ___, 431 P.3d 4, 7 (2018) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Because the facts in this case are largely undisputed, this case solely presents a question of law.

"An award of attorney fees and costs is within the discretion of the trial court and subject to an abuse of discretion standard of review." Ballard v. Kerr, 160 Idaho 674, 716, 378 P.3d 464, 506 (2016) (quoting Smith v. Mitton, 140 Idaho 893, 901, 104 P.3d 367, 375 (2004)). When this Court reviews whether a trial court has abused its discretion, the four-part inquiry is "[w]hether the trial court: (1) correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion; (3) acted consistently with the legal standards applicable to the specific choices available to it; and (4) reached its decision by the exercise of reason."

Dickinson Frozen Foods, Inc. v. J.R. Simplot Co., 164 Idaho 669, ___, 434 P.3d 1275, 1281 (2019) (quoting

Lunneborg v. My Fun Life, 163 Idaho 856, 864, 421 P.3d 187, 194 (2018)).

IV. ANALYSIS

The election contest at the center of this controversy concerns a disputed Senate seat following a general election. It is only the second such contest in Idaho's history. In addition, in 129 years of legislative history since statehood, the Senate has never before awarded attorney fees against a private citizen contesting the results of an election on the grounds that the contest was frivolous. Thus, in addition to the important constitutional principles at stake here, this case presents an issue of first impression for the Court.

A. The Idaho Senate did not have authority to award attorney fees to Nye at the time of this election contest.

The primary issue before us is not whether the amount of attorney fees awarded to Nye was unreasonable, but whether the Senate had authority under the Idaho Constitution to award Nye any attorney fees at all. Katsilometes argues that the Senate did not have authority under Article III, section 9 of the Idaho Constitution to award attorney fees to Nye, regardless of the Senate's finding that the Contest of Election was "brought and pursued frivolously, unreasonably, and without factual or legal foundation."[2] Accordingly, he argues that the district court erred when it determined the Senate had such authority and entered a declaratory judgment against him. For the reasons discussed below, we agree that the Senate did not have the authority to award attorney fees to Nye in January 2017 and, therefore, the district court erred when it entered a declaratory judgment against Katsilometes.

As this Court examines the constitutional authority vested in a co-equal branch of the government-in this case, the legislative branch-we are respectfully mindful that this dispute involves the interplay of the bedrock principles of separation of powers and checks and balances enshrined in the Idaho Constitution. Article...

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