Heard September 22, 2015.
Appeal from Greenwood County Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., Circuit Court Judge.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS
Gregory P. Harris and Jonathan S. Gasser, both of Harris & Gasser, LLC, of Columbia; and John P. Riordan, of Smith Moore Leatherwood, LLP, of Greenville, all for Petitioner.
Thomas E. Hite, Jr., of Hite & Stone, of Abbeville; James V. McDade, of Doyle Tate & McDade, PA, of Anderson; and Andrew F. Lindemann, of Davidson & Lindemann, PA, of Columbia, all for Respondent.
The issue here is whether a plaintiff who obtained a Rule 68, SCRCP, judgment of $5, 100 in his favor is a prevailing party within the meaning of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2006), and is therefore entitled to attorneys' fees. For the reasons discussed herein, we hold he is and reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
In 2003, William Alvin Hueble purchased 220 acres of farming and hunting property in Greenwood County. At the time of closing, the seller informed Hueble that Respondent Eric R. Vaughn, a corporal for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), had a personal deer stand on the property and had hunted there in the past. The seller indicated it would be a "good idea" to allow Vaughn continued access. Hueble declined the suggestion. During 2004, Hueble received a call from the seller informing him that Vaughn had recently been on the property and left four wheeler tracks. The seller again suggested that it would be in Hueble's "best interest" to allow Vaughn to hunt on the property, and provided Vaughn's phone number to Hueble. Hueble once again declined the suggestion and did not contact Vaughn.
Hueble then acquired additional land and invested substantial sums of money to improve and maintain his property for hunting. In the summer of 2005, Hueble planted his first dove field spanning fifteen acres. More than one month prior to the opening day of dove season, Hueble mowed all standing wheat/oats and disked the dove field twice. He believed the field was non-baited and in compliance with all regulations and guidelines.
On opening day, Hueble's friends and family joined him for the first hunt of the season. Shortly into the hunt, Vaughn and other DNR officers entered Hueble's property unannounced. Vaughn and the DNR officers gathered the hunters together and began threatening them with fines and confiscation of property for baiting the dove field. Vaughn dug into Hueble's property with a knife blade to produce seeds and claimed that one seed constituted baiting a field. During this interaction, Hueble learned Vaughn was the DNR officer the seller had mentioned. Ultimately, Hueble was the only hunter charged by DNR with baiting the field.
Prior to the court date for the baiting charge, Hueble invited Vaughn out to his property to discuss any other concerns Vaughn had with the property. Vaughn stated that he had actively hunted on the land previously-including in the off seasons-and had considered purchasing the property when it was for sale, but did not have the financial resources to do so. Hueble ultimately pled no contest to the baiting charge, believing this would resolve Vaughn's animosity.
Prior to turkey season, Hueble prepared for a hunt by setting up two food plots with clover, and he plowed several strips of dirt. Just prior to opening day, game cameras revealed numerous turkeys on the property; however, on opening day there were no turkeys to be found. As Hueble attempted to locate the turkeys he had previously seen on camera, he encountered a trespasser on the property and discovered the game cameras had been manipulated. Hueble contacted Vaughn to report trespassers and to inquire whether Vaughn had any information about the incident. Vaughn admitted that he and other DNR officers had been on the property on several occasions to hunt in the month leading up to that day. Hueble believed Vaughn and other DNR officers had in fact been on his property before and after opening day and, during those visits, entered his barn and accessed his equipment. At this time, Vaughn also informed Hueble that his food plots were illegal baiting and that DNR officers were prepared to arrest Hueble and his invited guests if they hunted over the food plots.
Based on these encounters with Vaughn, Hueble believed that Vaughn had a "vendetta" against him and that Vaughn's supervisor was fully aware of the alleged threats he was making against Hueble. Because of these concerns, Hueble initiated a complaint with Vaughn's supervisor at DNR. However, the supervisor responded with allegations of Hueble's illegal activity based upon Vaughn's version of the events. Hueble was again accused of baiting, this time for using a fish feeder in his pond for duck hunting season. The supervisor later recanted and instead alleged Hueble used cracked corn for baiting.
As a result of these continued allegations, Hueble filed another complaint and requested an investigation by DNR. In response, Vaughn provided a written statement detailing Hueble's alleged baiting practices and accusing Hueble of providing false information to Vaughn's superior. Ten months later, following an internal investigation, DNR determined that Vaughn had not exceeded his authority.
Thereafter, Hueble filed a complaint against DNR and Vaughn asserting several state law causes of action, along with a claim pursuant to section 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006) for the violation of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. In his answer, Vaughn asserted counterclaims against Hueble for slander, libel, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hueble then filed an amended complaint, in which he expanded his § 1983 claim to include an alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. Vaughn again asserted the ...