Trial court to reassess whether Rivian critics must pre-pay legal fees

Appeals court vacates earlier ruling ordering plaintiffs to pre-pay $365K to continue their zoning lawsuit against the state and a local agency
Aerial photograph shows the 2,000-acre Rivian factory site in southern Walton and Morgan counties. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Aerial photograph shows the 2,000-acre Rivian factory site in southern Walton and Morgan counties. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A group of Georgians opposed to Rivian’s planned $5 billion electric vehicle factory near their properties are no longer required to pony up significant funds to continue one of their legal battles — although it could just be a temporary reprieve on their wallets.

A Court of Appeals panel last week vacated a Fulton County judge’s order that would have required the six plaintiffs to pay nearly $365,000 to cover legal costs and attorney’s fees for the state and a local development authority. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox Jr. found last spring that the case concerning zoning and permits for the factory site was frivolous and unlikely to succeed.

However, the appeals court found the judge did not consider all of the Rivian opponents’ arguments before he made his ruling. So the issue will return to Cox for reconsideration.

Under state law, government entities can attempt to force plaintiffs to pre-pay the government’s legal fees to discourage the filing of frivolous lawsuits.

At issue is whether the state can avoid being subject to local zoning and permitting on property it owns. Plans for the Rivian plant initially were to have gone before local planning authorities and commissioners in Walton and Morgan counties. But the state assumed control of the property before the rezoning cases could be heard.

Rivian has since signed a long-term lease for the government-owned land. The plaintiffs, residents and property owners near the nearly 1,800-arce site allege the state took over the land to avoid those hearings.

John Christy, the Atlanta attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he aims to tighten up his arguments before returning to Cox’s courtroom.

“I’m hoping that we can convince Judge Cox differently this time around,” he said.

The case’s defendants — the Georgia Department of Economic Development and Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties (JDA) — said this ruling only delays their eventual victory, adding that they’ve won most legal challenges regarding the Rivian project.

“We’ve had multiple courts rule in the state and JDA’s favor on this matter,” they said in a joint statement. “(The Court of Appeals’) ruling continues to provide additional support for the State and JDA’s position, and we have every expectation that we will continue to prevail.”

A nearly identical zoning case in Morgan County was dismissed last month. Christy’s clients filed an appeal, which is pending.

The site has been graded and transferred to Rivian, but a groundbreaking ceremony has yet to take place. Company officials said they expect vertical construction to begin on the 16 million-square-foot factory in coming months. Cox Enterprises, which owns the AJC, also owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.