In open government lawsuits, a look at who pays (and who should)

A forthcoming law review article by Elliot Engstrom, an Elon Law Legal Method and Communication Fellow, analyzes a North Carolina law that leaves open to interpretation who should cover the costs of legal fees when a person sues state and local governments for lack of transparency.

When can someone be reimbursed for their attorney fees when they file a lawsuit in North Carolina because of potential violations of “open government” laws? And when can the government be compensated for the time its attorneys spend on claims?

Elliot Engstrom, a Legal Method and Communication Fellow at Elon Law, sheds light on those questions and explains how several other states have grapplied with the legal issue in a forthcoming article for the North Carolina Law Review.

“Defining North Carolina’s Public Records and Open Meetings Fee-Shifting Provisions in the Larger National Context” will appear in Volume 96, Issue 6, which is the journal’s annual issue focused on North Carolina-specific issues. Engstrom looks to define when a plaintiff or defendant in an open-government action might expect to receive an award of attorney’s fees based on broadly defined current state statutes.

He said his hope is that the research will serve judges, lawyers, news organizations, governments, and anyone who regularly deals with the public records and open meetings laws by bringing some clarity to the meaning of these statutes’ fee-shifting provisions.

“North Carolina’s fee-shifting provisions have been the subject of limited judicial interpretation,” Engstrom concludes in the law review article. “However, there is still room to make observations and predictions about how courts have and may in the future treat these provisions.”

About the Professorr:

A 2010 graduate of Wake Forest University, Elliot Engstrom received his law degree from the University of Georgia in 2013. He has litigated in administrative, trial, and appellate courts across North Carolina in addition to his responsibilities teaching Introduction to Legal Methods, Legal Method & Communication, and Administrative Law.

Engstrom’s research interests include freedom of information laws, state constitutions, and administrative law. Engstrom is a frequent commentator on state government issues for news outlets including Spectrum News, Fox 8 WGHP, WFDD Public Radio, WBTV, The Daily Tar Heel, NC Policy Watch, WCNC, and more. 

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition also has honored Engstrom in recognition of his work representing a client seeking access to government records involving a local police department, awarding him its 2017 Sunshine Award for Advocacy.

Engstrom is in the final month of his two-year appointment as an Elon Law LMC Fellow and was recently appointed senior staff attorney for North Carolina’s Cleveland County.