Warning signs of sanctionability

In affirming sanctions for vexatious litigation in connection with bankruptcy proceedings, the Fifth Circuit noted, in particular: “Appellants’ . . . repeated attempts to litigate issues that have been conclusively resolved against them or that they had no standing to assert and by their unsupported and multiple attempts to remove . . . the trustee.” Carroll v. Abide, No. 16-30996 (March 13, 2017).

Sanctions for inadequate Rule 26 disclosures

blue-white-number-rounded-rectangle-26-roundPlaintiff accused defendant (and his employer) of sexual assault while incarcerated at a privately-run detention center. Defense counsel had recordings of calls made by the plaintiff, from the facility, suggesting that the encounters were consensual. Counsel did not identify the recordings in their Rule 26 initial disclosures, and did not make the recordings available until the plaintiff’s deposition, after questioning her about the conversations. The district court sanctioned defense counsel for inadequate disclosure and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that “some evidence serves both substantive and impeachment functions and thus should not be treated as ‘solely’ impeachment evidence” under Rule 26. Olivarez v. GRO Group, Inc., No. 16-50191 (Dec. 12, 2016).

How to measure the Rule 11 “safe harbor.”

lighthouse-harborOn September 16, 2013, Defendants obtained a magistrate judge’s report that recommended dismissal of Plaintiffs’ complaint. On September 18, Defendants served – but did not file – a motion for sanctions, stating that it would not be filed until the 21-day Rule 11(c)(2) “safe harbor” period passed. Plaintiffs objected to the report on September 30; Defendants filed their motion on October 18; and after adoption of the report and further briefing, the district imposed $25,000 in sanctions in mid-2014. The Fifth Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ challenge to the sanction based on the safe harbor period, reasoning — “Given that Plaintiffs could have formally or informally disavowed their claims during the 21-day period after Defendants served their motion, but instead elected to continue pursuing their claims, the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Plaintiffs’ ‘safe harbor’ argument.” Margetis v. Ferguson, No. 16-40563 (Nov. 10, 2016, unpublished).

Not what you say, but how you say it.

mae-west-quoteA steel-hulled tugboat, owned by Marquette, allided with the fiberglass-hulled SES Ekwata, rendering the Ekwata unusable. In the resulting litigation, the plaintiff won damages and an award of sanctions under the district court’s inherent power. On appeal, “Marquette asserts that the fee award was unwarranted because Marquette had a good faith basis to challenge the quantum of damages and thus in proceeding through a trial. But even if true, this fact did not justify Marquette’s intransigence on liability or the means by which Marquette defended [Plainitff’s] damages claim—namely, one expert who, according to the
district court’s findings, opined on value ‘without including any comparables, without considering the equipment on the vessel, without an accurate description of the vessel, and without reliable underlying information” and a second expert who, according to the district court’s findings, “not only failed to correct the glaringly incorrect information set forth in [the first expert’s] report, but incorporated it into his own.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Moench v. Marquette Transp. Co. (revised October 13, 2016).

Do not violate injunctions.

stopsignThe preliminary injunction said: “Plaintiffs may contact former and current . . . employees . . . of the Debtor if and only if a written request is made by Plaintiffs’ counsel to counsel for SkyPort, and counsel for SkyPort either a) agrees to the proposed contact or b) does not respond within 1 business day,” and: “Plaintiffs are temporarily enjoined from: pursuing any and all claims or causes of action, derivative or direct, against all of the Defendants.”

Nevertheless, the trial court found that Plaintiffs’ counsel and Plaintiffs’ financial advisor “continued to pursue evidence and witnesses―namely Cole [Skyport’s former president]. They encouraged Cole to pursue her own claims . . . in other courts by arranging for her counsel, providing for a “loan” for her counsel’s retainer, and pursuing financial support for the state court litigation.”

The Fifth Circuit affirmed a substantial award of sanctions, reflecting the attorneys fees incurred to rectify the situation. The Court rejected defenses based on whether (1) the award was civil or criminal in nature, (2) fees alone could be the basis of the sanction awarded, (3) the injunction no longer was in effect, (4) the alleged violations were inadvertent, and (5) the individuals sanctioned were not subject to the order. Goldman v. Bankton Fin. Corp., No. 15-2-243 (Oct. 12, 2016, unpublished).

New Orleans snowball fight. Yes, that’s right.

1264570-mr_freeze_06Icy litigation about the “sno-ball” market in New Orleans led to a series of sanctions motions, requiring the Fifth Circuit to evaluate the potential chilling effect of sanctions. (The opinion cites this informative article about the technical development of shaved-ice treats.) The Court held:

  1. “If SnoWizard made material misrepresentations about the validity of various trademarks and patents [in other litigation], Southern Snow should have introduced those claims during its litigation over the validity of those trademarks and patents during the trial”;
  2. Alleged “obstructive acts” during those proceedings “are not criminal conduct” and thus “cannot act as a predicate offense for a civil-RICO claim”;
  3. Dismissal without prejudice is not a sufficient predicate for a later malicious prosecution claim; and
  4. Conversely, the various sanctions and damages theories advanced were “no so obviously foreclosed by precedent as to make them legally indefensible.”

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_SmallThe Court concluded: “”The parties could have shaved down the overwhelming costs in time, expense and scarce judicial resources that this litigation has consumed it they could have abandoned their unrelenting desire to crush the opposition.” Snow Ingredients, Inc. v. Snowizard, Inc., No. 15-30393 (Aug. 15, 2016). (The opinion echoes the similiarly frosty relations between the parties in the recent case of  Yumilicious v. Barrie, involving a dispute about frozen yogurt franchises.)

Produce the texts.

yunomemeThe district court required the plaintiff in an FLSA case to submit her phone to a forensic examiner. It then awarded significant sanctions when the defendants’ “inspection revealed that the text messages in question were not on [Plaintiff’s] phone, that the mobile application allegedly containing such text messages was not on the phone, and that the phone appeared to have been reset or newly activated only three days before the forensic inspection.” The Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion; footnote 2 of the opinion details several unsuccessful explanations and counterarguments offered by the plaintiff, which had no traction here but could be of interest in a future e-discovery dispute involving similar issues. Timms v. LZM, LLC, No. 15-20700 (July 5, 2016, unpublished).

Schedler’s List

voter graphicContinuing a line of cases involving careful scrutiny of injunctions by the Fifth Circuit, the Court again took issue with an order in Scott v. Schedler. The district court required Tom Schedler, Louisiana’s Secretary of State, to “maintain in force and effect his or her policies, procedures, and directives, as revised, relative to the implementation of the [National Voter Registration Act of 1993] with respect [to] coordination of the [Act] within Louisiana.” Schedler objected that the order was not sufficiently specific and the Fifth Circuit agreed: “[T]he injunction refers generally to the defendant’s policies without defining what those policies are or how they can be identified.” Noting that “[w]e are sensitive, of course, to the district court’s difficult position” in drafting a specific injunction without “dictating with intricate precision” state policy, the Court reviewed case law in the area and offered some guidance for remand. No. 15-30652 (June 15, 2016). While arising in the civil rights context, and not involving an effort to hold the Secretary in contempt, this opinion follows naturally from several other recent cases (link above) that have found insufficient specificity to justify sanctions.

Yes, inherent power does reach that –

bplogoAfter an investigation by special master Louis Freeh, the district court administering the Deepwater Horizon claims process imposed sanctions on a law firm that had exploited a relationship with a former staff attorney for the program. Among other arguments, the firm argued that the district court could not invoke its inherent power, because the program was not a court proceeding. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, noting that the district court had retained jurisdiction over administration of the program in the order that created it, so its “inherent authority to police seroius misconduct before it extended to the [program] over which it retained continuing and exclusive jurisdiction.” The Court distinguished Positive Software Solutions v. New Century Mortgage Corp., 619 F.3d 458 (5th Cir. 2010), which reversed a sanctions award about an arbitration, and FDIC v. Maxxam, Inc., 523 F.3d 566 (5th Cir. 2008), which involved “a proceeding that was not before the district court and did not challenge [its] authority.” In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 15-30265 (June 2, 2016).

A suit too far . . .

Stickerline-elsa-let-it-goUnsuccessfully, Plaintiff sued about the foreclosure on his home in state court in 2008, and again in federal court in 2012. The Fifth Circuit said he was “WARNED that further frivolous litigation will result in substantial sanctions under Rule 38 or this court’s inherent sanctioning power and will include monetary sanctions and restrictions on access to federal court.” Then, he filed a 60(b) motion, which he also lost, and which he also appealed. The Court dismissed his appeal as frivolous, sanctioned him $500, and barred him from future litigation about the foreclosure without leave of court. Fantroy v. First Financial Bank, No. 15-10975 (May 13, 2016, unpublished). (Some time ago, I TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smallwrote an article called “Loud Rules” with Wendy Couture about the nuances of this kind of judicial warning.)

Sanction affirmed.

Mole.

The case of In re Mole involved continuing fallout from proceedings involving impeached judge Thomas Porteous. Mole was accused of hiring an attorney who “had no useful experience in the type of litigation” at hand in an attempt to have Judge Porteous recuse himself. In disciplinary proceedings before the Eastern District of Louisiana, the first judge to hear the matter declined to sanction Mole, but the full court – reviewing the same record – suspended him for a year. The Fifth Circuit found that the en banc Eastern District could rule differently from the initial judge without giving it deference, and that sufficient evidence supported the sanction — in particular, “the $100,000 severance fee in the retention letter incentivizes the prospect of a recusal.” No. 15-30647 (May 4, 2016).