Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

United States v. Knott

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20854
Nos. Nos. 00-2238, -2239, 256 F.3d 20/(1st Cir., 07/12/2001)

The court reverses a district court's award of attorney fees to a plastic-coated steel wire mesh manufacturing plant but affirms the court's denial of attorney fees to the plant's principal owner. The plant and owner were indicted for knowingly discharging industrial wastewater with a hydrogen ion concentration (pH) below 5.0 standard units into a publicly owned treatment works in violation of the Clean Water Act. After certain sampling results were suppressed from the evidence, however, the case was dismissed without prejudice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) request. The plant and owner then sought attorney fees. The district court denied fees to the plant's principle owner, but awarded attorney fees to the plant as a prevailing party because while the prosecution was neither frivolous nor in bad faith, it was "clearly vexatious" within the meaning of the Hyde Amendment. According to the district court, the prosecution was vexatious because EPA did not have "any credible evidence" to support the accusation that the defendants discharged waste with a pH below 5.0 standard units into the public sewer.

The court first holds that the district court properly denied the owner's claim for attorneys fees under the Hyde Amendment because his net worth renders him ineligible for an award of fees pursuant to §2412(d) of the Equal Access to Justice Act. The court next holds that a determination that a prosecution was "vexatious" for the purposes of the Hyde Amendment requires both a showing that the criminal case was objectively deficient, in that it lacked either legal merit or factual foundation, and a showing that the government's conduct, when viewed objectively, manifests maliciousness or an intent to harass or annoy. The court then holds that the district court's award of attorney fees to the plant constituted an abuse of discretion. The district court did not make any express findings that the government's actions manifested malice or an intent to harass or annoy and instead rested its fee award solely on the purported absence of credible evidence to support the charges. The district court, therefore, erred in applying a legal standard that would award fees under the Hyde Amendment in any case where the prosecution is ultimately deemed to have been without sufficient foundation. Further, the district court erred in finding that there was no credible evidence on which to pursue charges against the plant. EPA had a reasonably sufficient evidentiary basis on which to pursue charges, both before and even after the suppression ruling.

Counsel for Appellant
John L. Smeltzer
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Counsel for Appellees
Warren G. Miller
Miller & Miller
15 Court Sq., Boston MA 02108
(617) 227-6493

Lynch, J. Before Torruella and Cyr, JJ.