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Swayne wins $29K in attorney fees

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | April 24, 2024 1:07 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — A judge has ordered North Idaho College to pay President Nick Swayne’s attorney fees after he successfully sued NIC for a copy of an investigative report that had been at the center of debate on the board of trustees.

Swayne won a lawsuit in January seeking information about an investigation into a former college employee’s allegations of “retaliatory treatment and retaliatory discharge” by Swayne and other college employees.

In a written decision filed Friday, First District Judge Barry McHugh awarded Swayne attorney fees and costs in the amount of $29,639.

This is the second time a Kootenai County judge has required NIC to pay Swayne’s legal bills. Last year, former First District Judge Cynthia Meyer, who now sits on the Idaho Supreme Court, awarded Swayne a little more than $150,000 in attorney fees after he successfully sued the college for permanent reinstatement.

Of the more recent judgment, McHugh writes: “The court finds that a significant amount of time and labor had to be expended by Swayne to conduct legal research, participate in negotiations to obtain the report, file the petition in this matter and respond to the pleadings and motions filed by NIC. The court does not find that Swayne was wasteful in his approach to this litigation, caused unnecessary expense or was unreasonable in the way he pursued this action.”

Swayne’s attorneys billed $39,136 for 126 hours of work on the public records lawsuit performed between Oct. 14, 2023, and Jan. 31 of this year, according to court records. Swayne had asked the court to award him the full amount, as well as $741 in court costs, but later withdrew a duplicative billing entry of $57.

The court determined that a fee entry of $550, incurred for two attorneys to attend a Dec. 29 court hearing in the matter, was not “reasonable and necessary” because just one of the attorneys handled the hearing in its entirety.

Swayne’s attorneys previously requested that any reduction in fees should be proportionate to the number of frivolous arguments presented by the college.

“Because NIC only presented one non-frivolous argument which was invoked in two different statutory sections, if the court is inclined to reduce the award, any reduction of fees and costs should be limited to a one-fourth reduction of the total requested amount,” Swayne’s counsel wrote in a memorandum filed with the court.

McHugh did just that, reducing Swayne’s allowable fees of $38,529 by 25%.

The investigative report is now part of a lawsuit levied by Laura Rumpler, the former NIC employee whose allegations prompted the investigation.

Filed in February in U.S. District Court, Rumpler alleges that NIC, the board of trustees and the college president created an “unsafe and untenable” workplace for Rumpler through “toxic, retaliatory and harassing conduct” that ultimately left her with “no choice but to resign” last year.

NIC has not yet responded to the lawsuit, though trustees are scheduled to convene at 5 p.m. today for an executive session to discuss the matter, as part of the board’s monthly meeting.