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Horton v. Jasper County School District

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 30, 2018

Randy Horton, Petitioner,
Jasper County School District, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2016-001507

          Heard March 28, 2018

          Appeal from Beaufort County Carmen T. Mullen, Circuit Court Judge


          James Ashley Twombley, of Twenge & Twombley, LLC, of Beaufort, for Petitioner.

          David T. Duff and David Nelson Lyon, both of Duff & Childs, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          FEW JUSTICE

         After Randy Horton won this action seeking the production of documents under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the circuit court awarded him attorneys' fees at a rate of $100 per hour. On appeal, we address solely the question of whether the court abused its discretion in selecting that hourly rate. We reverse.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Horton is an elected member of the Board of Trustees for the Jasper County School District. In his capacity as a Board member, Horton requested the Board produce itemized credit card statements for District-issued credit cards, a list of bonus checks given by the District, and information regarding the funding sources for those expenses. For reasons the District did not explain-and which we cannot fathom- the District refused to turn over the information. Horton then made a number of written requests to the District to produce the information pursuant to the FOIA. Thirteen months later, having received no documents from the District and no explanation for the District's refusal to produce the documents, Horton filed this action requesting the circuit court order the District to produce the documents and award him reasonable attorneys' fees. The District answered and denied Horton was entitled to the records he requested.

         Horton filed a motion for summary judgment. Between the filing of the motion and the initial hearing on the motion, the District produced to Horton some of the requested documents. At the initial hearing, the circuit court directed the parties to file additional briefs, and scheduled a full hearing. During the second hearing, the court instructed the District to produce the remaining documents and asked Horton's counsel to submit an affidavit of attorneys' fees and costs.

         Horton's counsel-the late Jennifer I. Campbell-filed an affidavit in which she detailed the amount of time she and her co-counsel-J. Ashley Twombley-spent working on the case, as well as the hourly rates requested for each attorney. In particular, counsel stated, "As of the date of this Affidavit, I have spent 95.60 hours working on the case; J. Ashley Twombley has spent 39.7 hours . . . ." Campbell listed her hourly rate at $250 and Twombley's rate at $295. The affidavit contained evidence to support those hourly rates. The attorneys' fee request based on the hours and rates Campbell supplied was $35, 611.50. In addition, Campbell stated the firm had incurred $1, 096.56 in litigation costs. The District did not respond, and did not present any evidence to contradict Campbell's affidavit.

         The circuit court issued an order granting Horton's motion for summary judgment, formalizing its previous instruction that the District produce "the entirety of requested documents." In the same order, the court found Horton was entitled to attorneys' fees and costs, stating,

Jennifer I. Campbell's affidavit regarding legal fees and costs . . . portrays commensurate time, nature, extent and difficulty expended by both Jennifer I. Campbell and J. Ashley Twombley in procuring the FOIA requested documents and litigation related thereto. Legal fees claimed relate to counsel's preparation of pleadings, briefing the court regarding jurisdiction over this issue, standing and the merits of the case. Document review was conducted over the course of several months. Once production was complete, individual documents totaled over two thousand pages over the course of seven different submissions. Counsel has a combined twenty-five years of experience in litigation. Ultimately, my ruling produces beneficial results for their client.

         The court then awarded attorneys' fees at a rate of $100 an hour for a total of 135.3 hours, which equals $13, 530. The circuit court gave no explanation for why it chose $100 per hour as opposed to the hourly rates Campbell presented in her affidavit. As to costs, the court found Horton ...

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