What is “Reptile Theory?”


Before my last post was written I had never heard of “reptile theory.” I found an excellent opinion (sadly unpublished) from 2017 that explains the theory in greater detail.

Defendant Costco Wholesale Corporation seeks to stop plaintiff’s counsel from making various statements to the jury during the upcoming trial. Uncoiling Costco’s motion, it appears to ask that I order Aidini’s counsel not to: (1) make any venomous remarks that might incite the jurors’ “primal” instincts to protect their offspring (what Costco calls the “reptile theory” of advocacy),[1] (2) suggest that Costco is slinking from its responsibility by defending this case, and (3) comment on the witnesses’ credibility.

Aldini v. Costco Wholesale, Inc., 2:15-cv-505 (D. Nevada 2017)(Andrew Gordon, J.)

Once shed of its skin, Costco’s motion is little more than a request that I monitor Aidini’s counsel to ensure they stay within the strictures of the federal evidentiary and procedural rules. Of course, counsel must have an evidentiary or legal basis for any statements to the jury. And if some specific statements square with the evidence but also pose a risk of unfairly undermining the jury’s reason, I will balance those scales when the time comes.[2] But I will not issue a blanket pretrial ruling based on nothing more than Costco’s suspicion that there are snakes lurking in the grass.

As to Costco’s request that Aidini’s counsel be barred from suggesting that the company is slithering from its responsibilities by defending this case, I cannot say at this point that this would be improper argument. Of course, argument is reserved for closings, not to be made during opening statements. And Costco is free to point out in its closing that it is entitled to defend itself like any other party.

Costco next requests that I prohibit Aidini’s counsel from suggesting that Costco’s witnesses speak with forked tongues or otherwise questioning their credibility. Again, there is no basis to issue such a ban at this time. Aidini’s counsel agree they will make comments about credibility only if founded in the evidence—and they are allowed to do that.

Similarly, Costco’s arguments about the reptilian theory fail. Federal courts have hissed at motions based on this theory that seek a broad prospective order untethered to any specific statements the other side will make.[3] As Aidini points out, it may be permissible for him to argue that, under Nevada’s law of negligence, the jury should consider what a reasonable person in the community would do in Costco’s place.[4] But Aidini’s counsel is prohibited from making statements that would place the jury in Aidini’s skin, or would otherwise violate the Golden Rule or any other applicable restriction on counsel’s arguments.[5]

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Costco’s motion in limine (ECF No. 48) is DENIED.

Comment: this opinion should be published. Protective Order Granted To Prevent “Reptile Theory” Questions

Protective Order Granted To Prevent “Reptile Theory” Questions


Before I read this case, Estate of McNamara v. Navar, No. 2-19-cv-109 (N.D. Ind. April 22, 2020) I had never heard of “reptile theory” questioning. Here the defendant in a trucking accident requested that the court issue a protective order to prevent such questioning in a fact deposition. The trial court issued the protective order:

The defendants claim that in past trucking-related-injury litigation cases with plaintiff’s counsel the deposition examination of defendant drivers has included “Reptile Theory” questioning. According to the defendants’ briefing, “Reptile Theory” as a litigation theory relies on two basic principles: (1) “[t]he Reptile is about community (and thus her own) safety[,]” and (2) “the courtroom is a safety arena.” See (DE 23, p. 4); David Ball & Don Keenan, REPTILE: THE 2009 MANUAL OF THE PLAINTIFF’S REVOLUTION, at 27 (1st ed. 2009). Reptiletrained attorneys thus look for ways to attempt to communicate to juries that “safety” is “the purpose of the civil justice system,” and that “fair compensation can diminish . . . danger within the community.” REPTILE: THE 2009 MANUAL OF THE PLAINTIFF’S REVOLUTION, at 29, 30. The defining purpose behind Reptile tactics, therefore, is to “give jurors [a] personal reason to want to see causation and dollar amount come out justly, because a defense verdict will further imperil them. Only a verdict your way can make them safer.” REPTILE: THE 2009 MANUAL OF THE PLAINTIFF’S REVOLUTION, at 39.

The defendants anticipate that plaintiff’s counsel will include significant questioning, including hypotheticals, regarding Navar’s knowledge of and the purpose underlying various purported “safety rules” for tractor-trailer operation. The defendants have argued that “Reptile Theory” questioning will create confusion around the defendants’ applicable duty of care by attempting to replace it with safety rules. Therefore, the defendants request that the court issue a protective order prohibiting plaintiff’s counsel from engaging in such questioning because it lacks any tangible connection to the scope of permissible discovery.

The plaintiff has indicated that “questions regarding safety . . . are certainly permissible questions during a discovery deposition,” and “questions along this line of safety could reasonably yield discoverable information.” (DE 24, p. 4). However, these conclusory assertions do not indicate what admissible evidence the plaintiff seeks to discover through this line of questioning. The plaintiff has not explained how questioning Navar about the purpose for alleged safety rules is relevant to the parties’ claims and/or defenses. Additionally, the plaintiff chose not to address the specifics included in the defendants’ motion, like how “Reptile Theory” questions or questions that plaintiff’s counsel previously asked in a trucking-related-injury deposition, e.g., “[i]f a commercial motor vehicle driver like yourself violated those rules [the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations], that could endanger the public, correct,” will produce discoverable information.

Navar has not been designated as an expert by the defense. His testimony, as a lay witness, is limited to one that is rationally based on his perception, helpful to clearly understanding his testimony or to determining a fact in issue, and not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge. Federal Rule of Evidence 701. Accordingly, asking Navar about alleged “safety rules,” including generalized hypotheticals, would fall outside the scope of permissible discovery. The purpose of a deposition is to discover the facts. Hypothetical questions are designed to obtain opinions and are beyond the scope of the deposition of a lay witness.

The court granted the motion for a protective order pursuant to Rule 26(c)(1).

Plaintiff Receives Stern Warning But Sanctions Are Denied


The case of Cody v. Charter Communications, LLC, No. 17-cv-7118-KMK (S.D. NY July 6, 2020) presents a common occurrence where a plaintiff brings a lawsuit (here a Title VII lawsuit against her former employer) but fails to disclose the lawsuit to her bankruptcy trustee or to the district court. (I have seen this happen several times in my career. Most people don’t understand that a lawsuit is an asset of a bankruptcy. These concepts, which are clear to lawyers, are not clear to the average person.)

Here, defendants sought sanctions pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 1927 and the dismissal of the action. The court allowed the plaintiff to substitute the bankruptcy trustee as plaintiff and denied the requests for sanctions with a stern warning to the plaintiff. The court was reluctant to dismiss the action because that would have harmed the bankruptcy creditors of the plaintiff.

The reasoning:

Defendant contends that Plaintiff and her counsel have effectively lied under oath because of her misrepresentations in her Bankruptcy Action, because her statements in her deposition and in her Affidavit contradict each other, and because Plaintiff and her counsel demonstrate a continued failure to correct the misrepresentations by failing to amend her Bankruptcy Petition and/or address the tension between her Affidavit and her deposition testimony. (See Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Sanctions 9-16.) Defendant seeks dismissal of this Action and payment of attorneys’ fees in the first instance, but otherwise, wishes the Court to preclude Plaintiff from personally recovering from this Action. (See id. at 16-17.)

Notably, the Second Circuit has clarified that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 sanctions “may be imposed on both counsel and client, while § 1927 applies only to counsel. . . . Rule 11 requires only a showing of objective unreasonableness on the part of the attorney or client signing the papers, but § 1927 requires more: subjective bad faith by counsel.” United States v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am., AFL-CIO, 948 F.2d 1338, 1346 (2d Cir. 1991). Other than referring to Federal Rule 11 in one footnote in its briefing, Defendant does not appear to actually move under this Rule or proffer any arguments pursuant to it. (See Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Sanctions 12 n.4; Not. of Mot for Sanctions.) Accordingly, the Court must look for “a clear demonstration of bad faith in order to justify sanctions,” Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 948 F.2d at 1347 (citation omitted), and even if sanctions are required, they should be imposed to deter counsel’s purported misconduct, not necessarily the client’s, see id.

To begin, as discussed above, the Court sees no reason to dismiss this entire Action, even as a sanction for purported misconduct by Plaintiff’s counsel. Dismissal of the Action hurts Plaintiff’s creditors more than anyone else. It is true that in August 2019, Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she was under the impression that she would personally recover any damages obtained from this Action, (Chapman Aff. in Supp. of Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings Ex. 1 (“Pl.’s Dep. Tr.”) 303 (Dkt. No. 62-1)), that she reviewed all her bankruptcy paperwork with her bankruptcy counsel and ensured that everything was true and accurate, (see id. at 26), and that she signed her Bankruptcy Petition after doing so, (id. at 317-18). It is also true that, in the course of the instant Motion practice, Plaintiff, through her counsel, has submitted an Affidavit, dated January 4, 2020, stating that her bankruptcy counsel had advised her that she did not need to review a “bunch of” “minor” “legal stuff” in her Bankruptcy Petition, and that, as a result, she “inadvertently overlooked the question regarding `pending law[]suits’.” (Pl.’s Aff. in Opp’n to Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings ¶ 4.) Plaintiff further affirms that, at her appearance in bankruptcy court in June 2019, she was informed by her bankruptcy counsel that she only needed to disclose the existence of this Action if she was “asked the question,” which Plaintiff claims Trustee never did. (Id. ¶¶ 5-7.) Plaintiff claims that her omission of this Action from her Bankruptcy Petition was inadvertent and she simply relied on “inaccurate information” from her bankruptcy counsel because she did not “have a lot of experience in or understand the legal system,” or, at least, not enough to realize that she should have voluntarily provided this information at her appearance in bankruptcy court. (Id. ¶ 10.)

Obvious tension exists between Plaintiff’s sworn testimony that she carefully reviewed every aspect of her Bankruptcy Petition for accuracy before filing it, (see Pl.’s Dep. Tr. 26, 317-18), and that Plaintiff simply cursorily reviewed her paperwork at the advice of her bankruptcy counsel, (see Pl.’s Aff. in Opp’n to Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings ¶ 4). But inconsistency does not necessarily prove that Plaintiff’s counsel has submitted an Affidavit that he “kn[ows] to be false.” (Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Sanctions 12.) Nor does it constitute an “action[]. . . so completely without merit as to require the conclusion that [it] must have been undertaken for some improper purpose such as delay.” In re Khan, 488 B.R. 515, 529 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2013) (citations and quotation marks omitted), aff’d sub nom. Dahiya v. Kramer, 2014 WL 1278131 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2014), aff’d sub nom. In re Khan, 593 F. App’x 83 (2d Cir. 2015). It is, of course, possible that Plaintiff gave the answer she thought she was obligated to give in a deposition and, following motion practice on the instant issues, it became necessary for Plaintiff and her counsel to reveal to the Court that Plaintiff actually did not review her bankruptcy materials as diligently as she should have. Although this may constitute a serious error that Plaintiff’s counsel should avoid in the future, the Court is not convinced that Defendant has presented a “clear showing” that Plaintiff’s counsel acted in bad faith or “completely without merit.” Id. at 529 (citations and quotation marks omitted). Defendant’s cited cases are largely inapplicable because they refer to different sanctioning mechanisms and standards and/or describe far more egregiously deceitful or dilatory behavior. See, e.g., Cine Forty-Second St. Theatre Corp. v. Allied Artists Pictures Corp., 602 F.2d 1062, 1067-68 (2d Cir. 1979) (imposing sanctions under Federal Rule 37 where the plaintiff’s counsel simply refused to engage in discovery requests and had “frozen [the] litigation in the discovery phase for nearly four years”); Joint Stock Co. Channel One Russ. Worldwide v. Infomir LLC, No. 16-CV-1318, 2017 WL 3671036, at *2, *31-32 (S.D.N.Y. July 18, 2017) (concluding that Rule 11 sanctions were warranted where counsel argued that his client did not have “sufficient contact with the United States or the State of New York” to come within the jurisdiction of the court but, inter alia, failed to reveal that the client’s website listed a New York address as an “authorized dealer” and that his own attorney’s fees were paid by check from a New York representative of his client), adopted by 2017 WL 4712639 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2017); Jimenez v. City of New York, 166 F. Supp. 3d 426, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (upholding decision to sanction the plaintiff’s counsel under Federal Rule 56(h) where counsel had “attempted to suppress[]various medical records,” and had submitted an affidavit that was “more than just objectively unreasonable, [but also] absolutely fanciful”), aff’d in relevant part by 666 F. App’x 39 (2d Cir. 2016). Therefore, the Court sees no need to further sanction Plaintiff’s counsel under § 1927 at this point in the litigation.

The Court warns Plaintiff that when she provides statements under penalty of perjury, whether through testimony, forms, affidavits, or any other judicial filing, she will be held liable for those words. Even though laypeople may feel intimidated by legal proceedings, they must still diligently review the accuracy of all their judicial submissions. But, to the extent Defendant seeks sanctions beyond barring Plaintiff from prosecuting and benefiting from this Action, the Court denies Defendant’s Motion for Sanctions without prejudice. Defendant may of course seek to file a motion for sanctions again if any misconduct continues. However, given that Trustee is now prosecuting this Action and Plaintiff has been warned about the importance of being fully transparent and forthcoming in all her legal proceedings, the Court anticipates that this will not be the case.

Should you have a question about federal procedure or your rights, do not hesitate to contact us. We can often be of help.

http://www.clintonlaw.net

District Court Denies Rule 11 Sanctions Even Though Plaintiff Did Not Respond To Motion


David Bailey v. Interbay Funding, LLC, 3:17-cv-1457 (VAB) (D. Connecticut, June 19, 2020) should be considered the case of the fortunate plaintiff. Bailey sued the finance companies after they initiated foreclosure proceedings against him. Bailey claimed a number of violations and added claims for common law fraud and civil conspiracy. In January 2020, the Court granted a defense motion for summary judgment. Defendants sought sanctions under Rule 11 because they argued that the fraud claim was baseless. The Court essentially held that while the claims might well have been sanctionable, it would deny sanctions to bring the case to an end.

To grant a motion for sanctions, the Court must conclude that it is “patently clear that a [targeted party’s] claim has absolutely no chance of success,” K.M.B. Warehouse Distribs., Inc. v. Walker Mfg. Co., 61 F.3d 123, 131 (2d Cir. 1995) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); or that the targeted party’s factual claims are “utterly lacking in support,” Storey, 347 F.3d at 388.[1]

Defendants argue that “there is not, and never was, any good faith basis to allege that Defendants engaged in fraud, and Plaintiff’s obstinate insistence on doing so has forced Defendants to spend a significant amount of money defending this vapid claim.” Mem. for Sanctions at 2. They argue that no factual or legal basis existed at the time the Fourth Amended Complaint was filed because (1) Mr. Bailey knew the fraud claim was barred by the statute of limitations, id. at 13-15 (“Plaintiff unequivocally admits that he learned about the alleged defects in the Property shortly after March 6, 2006, which he admits impacted its value,” and no later than October 5, 2010, requiring him to commence this action by October 5, 2013, even if the statute of limitations could be equitably tolled); (2) Mr. Bailey released Defendants from these claims in various stipulation agreements, id. at 16-17; and (3) Mr. Bailey “is incapable of presenting any evidence to support” his fraud claim, yet persists in making unsupported claims of fraud, id. at 17-19.

Further, Defendants argue that Mr. Cayo “did not conduct a reasonable and competent inquiry before signing and filing the Complaint,” id. at 20, as required by his obligation under Rule 11 “to conduct a reasonable investigation of both the relevant facts and the law,” id. at 2. In Defendants’ view, “[e]ven if [Mr.] Cayo could not have conducted a full investigation into Plaintiff’s factual assertions without discovery from Defendants, [ ] he certainly had all the necessary information by November 12, 2018, when Defendants produced the loan file,” yet he “chose to ignore this information . . . and to pursue the baseless fraud claim.” Id. at 20.

Neither Mr. Bailey nor Mr. Cayo has responded to Defendants’ motion for sanctions. Nonetheless, the Court will not impose sanctions.

As Defendants acknowledge, Mr. Bailey admitted that he did not have documents showing Defendants’ alleged fraudulent concealment, but rather believed that Bayview had such documents in its file. Mem. for Sanctions at 9. Defendants contend that “by November 12, 2018, when Defendants produced almost 900 pages of Plaintiff’s loan file, both [Mr. Bailey] and [Mr.] Cayo had all the information they needed to confirm that there was no good faith basis to assert a fraud claim.” Id. But this loan file was produced months after Plaintiff submitted his Fourth Amended Complaint and therefore does not establish that it was “patently clear” that there was no chance of success on Mr. Bailey’s fraud claim.

After Defendants produced the loan file, the parties engaged in further discovery regarding the validity of the documents produced. See, e.g., Minute Entry, ECF No. 96 (Apr. 5, 2019) (Judge Hall setting deadlines for second deposition of Mr. Bailey and completion of expert analysis of handwriting). Defendants then moved for summary judgment, which Mr. Bailey opposed. Mot. for Summ. J.; Pl.’s Obj.

“`[A] litigant’s obligations [under Rule 11] with respect to the contents of . . . papers are not measured solely as of the time they are filed with or submitted to the court, but include reaffirming to the court and advocating positions contained in those pleadings and motions after learning that they cease to have any merit.'” Galin v. Hamada, 753 F. App’x 3, 8 (2d Cir. 2018) (summary order) (noting, however, that “it would not be appropriate for a district court to impose sanctions simply because a party unsuccessfully opposed summary judgment”) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 Advisory Committee’s Note (1993)).

But “Rule 11 sanctions are a coercive mechanism, available to trial court judges, to enforce ethical standards upon attorneys appearing before them.” Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. USA Cable, 426 F.3d 650, 652 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Estate of Warhol, 194 F.3d at 334 (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted)). “Although the imposition of sanctions is within the province of the district court, any such decision should be made with restraint and discretion.” Id.; see also Lawrence v. Richman Grp. of CT LLC, 620 F.3d 153, 158 (2d Cir. 2010) (“Rule 11 does not . . . authorize sanctions for merely frustrating conduct.”); E. Gluck Corp. v. Rothenhaus, 252 F.R.D. 175, 179 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (“Courts maintain a high bar for establishing a Rule 11 violation given judicial concern for encouraging zealous advocacy.” (internal citations omitted)). Rule 11 therefore “limits the sanctions that may be imposed for a violation of Rule 11 `to what is sufficient to deter repetition of [the wrongful] conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated.'” Salovaara v. Eckert, 222 F.3d 19, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)); see also Universitas Educ., LLC v. Nova Grp., Inc., 784 F.3d 99, 103 (2d Cir. 2015) (“`[T]he main purpose of Rule 11 is to deter improper behavior, not to compensate the victims of it or punish the offender.'” (quoting 5A Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 3d § 1336.3 (3d ed. 2004))).

The Court has now granted summary judgment to Defendants based on Plaintiff’s inability to produce evidence supporting his claims. See Ruling on Summ. J. Thus, one of the outcomes Defendants sought through sanctions—dismissal of the case, Mem. for Sanctions at 2—has occurred. See On Time Aviation, Inc. v. Bombardier Capital Inc., 570 F. Supp. 2d 328, 332 (D. Conn. 2008) (“[A] firmly held conviction of the correctness of one’s position does not authorize collateral attack on an opponent’s legal arguments by resort to Rule 11.”), aff’d, 354 F. App’x 448 (2d Cir. 2009).

Since the Court granted summary judgment to Defendants, Mr. Cayo has withdrawn his appearance from the case, and Mr. Bailey has not filed—and having failed to comply with the Court’s deadline, cannot file—anything further in this case. The case therefore will be closed.

Accordingly, rather than prolong this matter any further, this Court chooses to exercise its discretion and end this case.

Comment: the court denied the sanctions motion out of a desire to end the litigation and, perhaps, because the attorney who had represented the plaintiff withdrew from the case.

Should you have a question about federal procedure, do not hesitate to call me.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

Rule 37 Sanctions Awarded Where Party Refused to be Deposed


In this case, the plaintiff sought to collect a Maryland judgment in the Virgin Islands. Defendants resisted the efforts to take discovery concerning their assets and walked out of a scheduled deposition. Rule 37 sanctions were awarded. The explanation:

Plaintiff seeks sanctions for Defendants’ failure to proceed with the noticed depositions. The Court agrees that sanctions are warranted under the circumstances here.

In Goodwin v. City of Boston, 118 F.R.D. 297 (D. Mass. 1988), a Massachusetts federal district court was faced with a situation similar to that in the instant matter. The court there stated:

The filing of a motion to quash or a motion for protective order does not automatically operate to stay a deposition or other discovery. When it appears that a Court is not going to be able to decide a motion to quash or a motion for protective order before the date set for a deposition, counsel for the movant should contact counsel for the party noticing the deposition and attempt to reach an agreement staying the deposition until after the court acts on the motion to quash and/or the motion for a protective order. If agreement cannot be reached, it is incumbent on counsel for the movant to file a motion to stay the deposition until the court acts on the motion to quash and/or for a protective order and to alert the clerk to the need for immediate action on the motion to stay.

Id. at 298 (emphasis added); see also Barnes v. Madison, 79 F. App’x 691, 707 (5th Cir. 2003) (“[T]he mere act of filing a motion for protective order does not relieve a party of the duty to appear; the party is obliged to appear until some order of the court excuses attendance.”); Hepperle v. Johnston, 590 F.2d 609, 613 (5th Cir. 1979) (“The court’s inaction on appellant’s motion [for a protective order] to postpone the taking of his deposition … did not relieve him of the duty to appear for his deposition); Unlimited Holdings, Inc. v. Bertram Yacht, Inc., 2008 WL 4642191, at *5 (D.V.I. Oct. 15, 2008) (denying defendant’s request for sanction of dismissal, but noting that “[i]n the absence of a protective order, [plaintiff] was obligated to attend the deposition. . . .”); Sutherland v. Mesa Air Group, Inc., 2003 WL 21402549, at *5 n.10 (S.D. Fla. June 6, 2003) (“[T]he filing of a motion for a protective order alone would still not have relieved defense counsel of his obligation to attend the depositions; only when the district court grants the motion does the obligation to comply with a notice of deposition dissipate.”).

Shortly before the depositions at issue here were to take place, Defendants appealed the Magistrate Judge’s ruling and filed a motion for a protective order, but did not seek and obtain a stay of the depositions pending a ruling by the Court. By relying on their 39-minute-old appeal of the Magistrate Judge’s Order instead of a stay by the Court, and choosing to walk out of the deposition—or not appear at all—instead of adopting the suggestion presented by Plaintiff’s counsel to contact the Magistrate Judge, Defendants and their counsel acted at their peril.

Judge Miller’s Order denying the motion to quash the notices of depositions did not bring the case—nor any of the pending deadlines or scheduled discovery—to a halt. Judge Miller’s Order—even if Defendants disagreed with it—did not obviate the need for their continued compliance with the pending depositions, in the absence of a stay or protective order. Nor did Defendants’ motion for a protective order have the effect of staying the depositions. Simply stated, in the absence of a stay entered by the Court, Defendants were not relieved of their obligation to proceed with the depositions. Thus, the Court finds that Defendants failed to comply with their discovery obligation without just cause.

The Court further finds that sanctions are appropriate for Defendants’ flagrant disregard of well-established legal principles regarding the need for a court-ordered stay under the circumstances here. While the Court concludes that it would be too severe a sanction to deem it established that Defendants do not have sufficient personal property to satisfy the judgment, the Court nonetheless finds that Plaintiff should be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs associated with Defendants’ unjustified failure to proceed with the depositions. Plaintiff will be required to submit to the Court an application for such attorneys’ fees and costs for a determination of an appropriate award by the Court.

Choice Hotels International, Inc. v. Special Spaces, Inc., 2013-MC-0023, June 3, 2020 (D. Virgin Islands).

District Court Holds That Oregon Cannot Assert Personal Jurisdiction Over Alaska Lawyers


The case is MBJE, Inc. v. Barbara Norris, et al., No. 6:19-CV-00161 (D. Oregon, Eugene Division, January 23, 2020). The plaintiff is an Oregon corporation that filed a legal malpractice suit against attorneys who live and practice in Alaska. The underlying dispute concerned a probate case in the Alaska courts that the lawyers handled. When they were sued for legal malpractice in Oregon, the moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The opinion summarizes the dispute:

“Plaintiff MBJE Inc. is an Oregon corporation. Plaintiff brings four legal malpractice claims against two Alaskan attorneys, Tonja Woelber and Barbara Norris, and their firms, Tonja Woelber, Attorney at Law, P.C.; Woelber & Passard, LLC; Law Office of Barbara A. Norris, LLC.[1] Plaintiff brings a legal malpractice claim, a breach of fiduciary duty claim (“BOFD”), and an indemnity claim against both defendants. Plaintiff also brings a breach of contract claim against Woelber.

Plaintiff was assigned the claims of Phillip Jones. Jones’ stepmother, Mary Buza Jones was a long-time resident of Alaska who died in Alaska. She left an estate (of real and personal property located in Alaska) that was probated in the Superior Court of Alaska. Jones called attorney Woelber in Alaska and asked her to represent him in the probate of his stepmother’s estate. Jones asked Woelber to have him appointed Personal Representative of that estate. She filed the probate action and successfully petitioned the court as requested.

As Personal Representative of his stepmother’s estate, Jones then contacted attorney Norris in Alaska and asked her to review a California settlement agreement involving the estate, which she did. Norris also, on Jones’ request, sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service confirming that Jones was the Personal Representative of his late stepmother’s estate. Norris was known to Jones because Norris had represented Jones’ sister, who resided in Arizona, in a guardianship matter as to the siblings’ stepmother.

Woelber communicated with Jones by email, mail, and phone but never traveled to Oregon to meet with him. She sent invoices to an Oregon address. Norris communicated with Jones by email, fax, and telephone but never traveled to Oregon to meet with him. She sent invoices to a California address provided by Jones.

The two attorneys and their law firms are citizens of Alaska. Both defendants were and are licensed to practice law in Alaska. Neither attorney has ever been licensed to practice law in Oregon. Neither attorney has done business or advertised business in Oregon. Norris has been to Oregon for professional reasons two times. In 2015, she attended a deposition of an Oregon witness for an unrelated Alaska case scheduled by another counsel. And “many years ago,” on behalf of an Alaskan client, she came to Oregon to search for that client’s kidnapped children. Norris Decl. ¶ 5. Woelber has only been to Oregon as a tourist.

After plaintiff filed the present complaint, defendants moved to dismiss the claims for lack of personal jurisdiction, or in the alternative to transfer venue to the District of Alaska.”

The court concluded that there was no personal jurisdiction over the attorneys:

To establish specific jurisdiction for a tort claim, a plaintiff must show that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state. Schwarzenegger, 374 F.3d at 804-05. Specifically, the plaintiff must show that a defendant (1) committed an intentional act (2) expressly aimed at the forum state (3) causing harm that the defendant knows is likely to be suffered in the forum state. Id.

Here, plaintiff asserts that defendants purposely directed activities at Oregon because (1) they provided legal services to Jones and advised him on the probate matter, and, (2) in receiving payment for these services, defendants “consummated a transaction” with Jones. Pl’s Resp. to Def. Mot. to Dismiss at 12-13.

But these claims are not based on intentional or purposeful acts. Plaintiff alleges malpractice and BOFD, which are claims of negligence. Plaintiff alleges not that defendants purposefully directed allegedly wrongful activities at Oregon but that they acted with “mere untargeted negligence.” Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 789 (1984). Thus, as to the legal malpractice and BOFD claims, plaintiff fails to establish that defendants purposely directed their activities at Oregon. Thus, this Court cannot exercise specific personal jurisdiction over defendants with respect to plaintiff’s tort claims.

Comment: this result appears to be correct as the attorneys handled a case in Alaska, not Oregon, and would not have expected to be sued in Oregon.

Rule 11 Sanctions Granted For Frivolous Damages Claim


The plaintiff, a jewelry merchant, sustained damage when its inventory was destroyed in a fire in a BMW. Plaintiff sued BMW for damages and sought $5,677,114 in lost profits. The District Court granted the motion and sanctioned plaintiff $5,000 because the law is well settled that the merchant can only recover the replacement cost of the merchandise. The reasoning is provided below:

The claim for full retail value had absolutely no chance of success under governing precedents.[4] Where property is partially destroyed, the plaintiff may recover the lesser of: (1) the difference between the market value of the property before and after the harm was inflicted;[5] or (2) the replacement cost.[6] Hartshorn v. Chaddock, 135 N.Y. 116, 31 N.E. 997, 998 (1892)see also In re Sept. 11th Litig.,590 F. Supp. 2d 535, 541 (S.D.N.Y. 2008). Where the plaintiff’s property is totally destroyed, the measure of damages is its reasonable market value. Gass v. Agate Ice Cream, Inc., 264 N.Y. 141, 144, 190 N.E. 323 (1934)Reed v. Cornell Univ.,138 A.D.3d 816, 818 (N.Y. App. Div. 2016).[7]

Crucially, “[t]he market value of a merchant’s goods is the price at which they could be replaced in the market, not the retail price at which they could be sold.” Ever Win, Inc. v. 1-10 Indus. Assoc., 111 A.D.3d 884, 886, 976 N.Y.S.2d 123 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013) (quoting Wehle v. Haviland, 69 N.Y. 448, 450 (1877)). Recovery of the retail value, including the merchant’s lost profits, is only permissible in limited cases which do not apply here—for instance, if the merchandise was already under contract for a specified price and awaiting delivery, or if the goods were stolen by the defendants. Reed, 138 A.D.3d at 818Wehle v. Butler, 61 N.Y. 245, 245 (1874).

In opposing Rule 11 sanctions, Plaintiff’s counsel concedes that “after reviewing the available evidence” its client could not plausibly be entitled to damages based on retail value or lost profits. (ECF No. 109, “Pl’s Opp’n” at 5, 9-10). However, Plaintiff’s counsel nonetheless urges this Court to deny the motion on mootness grounds, citing a December 6, 2019 email he sent to Defendant’s counsel:

“In performing our review and analysis … we believe that the plaintiff can establish its damages based on the diminution in value of the business … and will seek permission from the court to amend our claim accordingly, and to produce expert analysis establishing a lost valuation claim of $1.5 Million. In the event the Court denies our motion to so amend and produce expert analysis, we agree to amend our complaint by withdrawing the claim for lost profits, and proceed with a claim based upon replacement cost….”

(Id. at 5). The Court is perplexed by Plaintiff’s counsel’s interpretation of his own email. He insists this email proves that Plaintiff accepted Defendant’s request to calculate damages based on replacement cost. (Id.). But his purported acceptance is no acceptance at all. It is a counteroffer, conditioned in part upon this Court’s uncertain permission to reopen discovery based on a new theory of damages.[8]

Accordingly, Defendant’s Rule 11 motion is granted.[9] Sanctions are imposed in the amount of $5,000, payable to the Clerk of the Court, to be paid within 30 days of this order.

Comment: the lawyer attempted to avoid the sanctions issue by writing an email to opposing counsel offering to withdraw the allegation. Instead, the lawyer should have simply withdrawn the allegation within the safe harbor period.

Zsa Zsa Jewels, Inc. v. BMW of North America, LLC, No. 15-cv-6519 (E.D. NY April 2, 2020).

Noncompliant Plaintiff Avoids Rule 37 Dismissal


If a party disregards a court order to produce documents or update discovery responses, the court may order dismissal of the case pursuant to Rule 37. In Glover v. CoreCivic of Tennessee, No. 18-cv-2330 (S.D. Cal. February 11. 2020), the plaintiff failed to comply with an order to supplement its discovery responses, but the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The court reasoned that both parties were not dealing with each other in an appropriate and civil manner.

Rule 37 allows for terminating sanctions to be levied against a party for not obeying an order to supplement discovery responses. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1)(C). It is so harsh a penalty that it should only be imposed as a sanction in extreme circumstances. Henderson, 779 F.2d at 1423 (9th Cir. 1986). When sanctions for dismissal are considered, the court weighs: (1) the public’s interest in expeditious resolution of litigation; (2) the court’s need to manage its docket; (3) the risk of prejudice to defendant; (4) the public policy favoring disposition of cases on the merits; and (5) the availability of less drastic sanctions. Thompson v. Hous. Auth. of City of L.A., 782 F.2d 829, 831 (9th Cir. 1986).

The public’s interest in expeditious resolution of litigation is not a factor that weighs in Defendant’s favor. The parties’ seeming inability to work cooperatively in bringing this case to trial or settlement is evidenced by the recent flurry of motion practice in this case. Since this motion has been filed Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Evidentiary and Monetary Sanctions for Spoliation of Evidence (Doc. No. 34), a Motion for Extension of Time to File an Opposition to the Current Motion (Doc. No. 40), a Motion to Disqualify Counsel (Doc. No. 41) and a Motion for Relief from Court Order Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(B); Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 42), and Defendant has filed three motions to stay related to Plaintiff’s motion to disqualify, spoliation of evidence and its own motion to dismiss (Doc. Nos. 45, 46, 47.) But the responsibility for this cannot be laid entirely at Plaintiff’s door.

None of the remaining factors weigh in Defendant’s favor either. The delay in producing the documents is not so prejudicial to CoreCivics that it cannot be remedied by, for example, extending the discovery cut-off date. Furthermore, by its own admission, GEO Group has produced countless records related to Mr. Glover, including those under his aliases. Notably, absent from Defendant’s motion is any mention of the fact that the video of the alleged fall has been destroyed.

Finally, Defendant argues that the imposition of lesser sanctions is not feasible because Plaintiff has not produced or disclosed the information sought because it is unfavorable to him and that prohibiting him for producing evidence of injury would nullify his claim. But Defendant’s all or nothing approach is extreme and ignores other less drastic measures such as monetary sanctions, evidence and issue preclusion, or tailored jury instructions.[2] See Fed. R. Civ. P. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1)(A)-(B). But Mr. Kaufman is in violation of Judge Stormes’ order, and the court has given him “crystal clear” warning of the significant consequences available to the court for any continuing failures. Henderson, 779 F.2d at 1424. At bottom, however, the record here does not reveal a long history of inexcusable delay and neglect on the part of plaintiff’s counsel and, as far as this court is aware, Mr. Kaufman has not violated any other discovery orders.

While the court is not condoning Plaintiff’s failure to comply with Judge Stormes’ order, dismissal of this case is not warranted under either Rule 37 or Rule 41. Accordingly, the court DENIES Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution (Doc. No. 31). The parties are reminded that the basic standards of professionalism are expected of all attorneys appearing before this court. See CivLR 83.4(a)(1)(a)-(b), (2)(a)-(b).

Comment: civil conduct is often the best way to avoid problems in any court.

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Rule 11 Sanctions For False Allegations in Complaint


This is an unpublished opinion, Estrada v. FTS USA, LLC, No. 18-15336 (11th Cir. April 20, 2020), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a $60,000 Rule 11 sanctions award against lawyers who included a false allegation in their complaint.

The explanation follows:

The district court imposed sanctions under Rule 11(b)(3) because it found that Mr. Zidell and his firm filed a Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) complaint making the objectively frivolous allegation that FTS had “never” paid their client, Orlando Estrada, “any” overtime wages as required by the Act. The district court found this allegation demonstrably false because (1) FTS’s weekly time records—signed by Mr. Estrada—showed that FTS had paid him overtime wages during the months in question, and (2) Mr. Estrada acknowledged in his deposition that he had been paid the overtime wages documented in his earnings statements. The district court explained that Mr. Zidell and his firm did not conduct a reasonable investigation into Mr. Estrada’s claims and neglected to withdraw or modify the allegation in question when given the opportunity….

Continuing to lean on the language of the complaint, Mr. Zidell and his firm contend that satisfying the pleading requirements to state an FLSA claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 render sanctions inappropriate here. This argument fails to advance Mr. Zidell and his firm’s position. The factual allegations required under Rule 8 “are subject to Rule 11’s command—under pain of sanctions—that `the allegations and other factual contentions have, or are likely to have following discovery, evidentiary support.'” Lowery v. Ala. Power Co., 483 F.3d 1184, 1216 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b)). Therefore, alleging facts sufficient under Rule 8 does not shield the pleading from Rule 11 scrutiny when the allegations are objectively frivolous. Said another way, the magistrate court sanctioned Mr. Zidell and his firm not because the wording of the complaint failed to state a claim, but instead because the allegation as worded objectively lacked evidentiary support.

Second, Mr. Zidell and his firm assert that their factual claim was not objectively frivolous because Mr. Estrada was also alleging that he was not paid “all” of the overtime wages to which he was entitled. This argument, however, ignores the fact that the unsupported factual allegation—that FTS “never” paid Mr. Estrada “any” overtime wages—was never withdrawn, and FTS was forced to defend against it. The assertion by Mr. Zidell and his firm that their case for Mr. Estrada “just . . . did not pan out,” see Appellant’s Br. at 32, does not show an abuse of discretion.

The court affirmed an award of $60,000 in sanctions, which was about 1/2 of the requested amount. A dissenting judge would remand for a full hearing on the reasonableness of the fee request.

Should you have an issue under Rule 11, do not hesitate to contact me.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

http://www.clintonlaw.net

Rule 37 Sanctions Denied Even Though Defendant Failed to Produce Documents


Gym Door Repairs, Inc. v. Young Equipment Sales, Inc. (No. 15-cv-4244 March 11, 2020) discusses a Rule 37 sanctions motion where one party failed to produce some documents. Here the court denied sanctions because the documents that were not produced would not have changed the outcome of the case. The plaintiffs obtained the documents by serving a FOIA request on a governmental body. The reasoning is included here:

In an opinion also dated January 28, 2020, the Magistrate Judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for Rule 37 sanctions based on the alleged failure of the Defendants to produce the documents that were disclosed as a result of the FOIL request. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a) requires this Court to set aside any portion of the order under review “that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.” As a “non-dispositive matter,” a Magistrate Judge’s pretrial discovery ruling is reviewed under this highly deferential standard. See Thomas E. Hoar, Inc. v. Sara Lee Corp., 900 F.2d 522, 525 (2d Cir. 1990). An order is clearly erroneous if the reviewing court is “left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” See Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “An order is contrary to law when it fails to apply or misapplies relevant statutes, case law or rules of procedure.” Thompson v. Keane, No. 95-CV-2442 (SHS), 1996 WL 229887, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. May 6, 1996) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). See also Frydman v. Verschleiser, No. 14-CV-8084 (JGK), 2017 WL 1155919, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2017).

It is not clear that the plaintiffs have filed a timely appeal from the denial of sanctions under Rule 37. The plaintiffs have not denominated their pleading as an appeal from the Magistrate Judge’s ruling, and have referred to Rule 37 only in the final sentence of their objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation relating to Rule 11 sanctions. Even then, the plaintiffs do not detail any objections to the denial of their request for Rule 37 sanctions.

In any event, in this case, far from being erroneous, the Magistrate Judge correctly concluded that there was no basis for imposing any sanctions under Rule 37 because the failure to produce the documents disclosed in response to the FOIL request would not have changed the outcome of the summary judgment motions at all. There were numerous reasons to grant the summary judgment motions against the plaintiffs and the documents produced in response to the FOIL request would not have changed that result. Therefore, the decision of the Magistrate Judge was not clearly erroneous or contrary to law but was plainly correct.

The court denied all requests for sanctions.