Shockley v. Cascade County

Shockley v. Cascade County, 2016 MT 34 (Feb. 16, 2016) (Cotter, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court properly denied Shockley’s motion for attorney fees under § 2-3-221, MCA.

Short Answer: Yes.

Affirmed

Facts: Shockley sought disclosure of a settlement agreement between a Cascade County detention office, Jason Carroll, Cascade County, and Carroll’s collective bargaining unit, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 2. In 2014 MT 281, this Court held that Shockley had standing to assert a claim against the county for disclosure of the documents. The county had no objection to disclosure, and the district court entered Carroll’s default. The only party opposing disclosure was the union, which relied on the confidentiality provision of the settlement agreement, to which it was a party.

The district court granted Shockley’s motion and ordered the county to disclose the agreement.

Procedural Posture & Holding: As the prevailing party, Shockley moved for an award of costs and attorney fees from the union under § 2-3-221, MCA, seeking fees incurred after Carroll’s default and after the county conceded it had no objection. The district court awarded Shockley his costs but denied his request for attorney fees. Shockley appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: “A person alleging a deprivation of rights who prevails in an action brought in district court to enforce the person’s rights under Article II, section 9, of the Montana constitution may be awarded costs and reasonable attorney fees.” § 2-3-221, MCA. Such an award is discretionary. The district court held that “the “extraordinary development of case law evolving as the case was in progress [makes it] hard to find any justice in assessing attorney’s fees against the Union.” ¶ 8.

The Supreme Court declines to decide whether this is a sufficient rationale for abuse of discretion review, holding instead that an award of attorney fees is inappropriate because the sole entity from which such fees are sought is not a public or governmental body. Although the Court generally does not resolve appeals on grounds not raised by the parties, it does so here to ensure that fees under § 2-3-221, MCA, cannot be recovered only against public or governmental bodies in right-to-know cases.