This is a case arising under 28 USC § 1927, which allows a federal court to award legal fees against an attorney who “multiplies the proceedings.” In this ill-founded RICO lawsuit against BMO Harris Bank, the court awarded sanctions against three law firms. What makes the case interesting is that the court awarded further sanctions for their conduct in defending against the sanctions motion itself. The underlying wrongful conduct was the failure of the lawyers to disclose an arbitration agreement that apparently barred them from proceeding in federal court and required them to file in arbitration.
The court explains:
After providing Nguyen the Rule 11 “safe harbor” period, Wells Fargo filed the Sanctions Motion [Doc. # 9]. Wells Fargo argues that Nguyen violated Rule 11 by filing the Fourth Lawsuit, in which she assisted Khan to assert claims Nguyen knew previously had been dismissed with prejudice in the First and Third Lawsuits. Nguyen responds that she did not violate “the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” because: Khan’s complaint filed in the First Lawsuit was not groundless; Khan’s attorney in the First Lawsuit did not explain the significance of a non-suit with prejudice to Khan; Khan was unaware that her attorney had filed a non-suit with prejudice; and counsel for Wells Fargo bullied Khan’s attorneys, including Nguyen.
Nguyen’s arguments are meritless. In filing the Fourth Lawsuit, Nguyen ignored two prior dismissals with prejudice of the very claims asserted in this case. The doctrine of res judicata precludes multiple lawsuits on the same causes of action. See United States v. Davenport, 484 F.3d 321, 325-26 (5th Cir. 2007). Under the doctrine, “a final judgment on the merits bars further claims by parties or their privies based on the same cause of action.” Id. at 326 (quoting Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153 (1979)). The Fifth Circuit determines whether two suits involve the same claim or cause of action by applying the transactional test of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments, § 24, which turns on “whether the two cases under consideration are based on `the same nucleus of operative facts.” Id. at 326 (quoting In re Southmark Corp., 163 F.3d 925, 934 (5th Cir. 1999)). Independent of any argument Nguyen may assert regarding the effect of the non-suit with prejudice of the First Lawsuit, it is undisputed that Nguyen was counsel in the Third Lawsuit, which was dismissed with prejudice on April 2, 2015, just months before Nguyen filed the Fourth Lawsuit, and which created a final judgment with respect to the claims presented in the Fourth Lawsuit. Moreover, the Petition in the Third Lawsuit alleged that the First Lawsuit had also been dismissed with prejudice. Nguyen, who filed both the Third and Fourth Lawsuits, knew or should have known the basic legal tenets of res judicata. Nevertheless, she ignored the dismissal of the Third Lawsuit.
Nguyen also has delayed resolution of the issues regarding foreclosure on the deed of trust on the Property by repeatedly filing bankruptcies on behalf of Khan without completing the reorganization or discharge process. Together with her disregard of res judicata, this course of conduct suggests an egregious pattern of harassment and purposeful unwarranted delay. See Hall v. Chase Home Fin., LLC, No. A-10-CA-206-SS, 2010 WL 2732404, at *1 (W.D. Tex. July 8, 2010) (imposing sanctions on plaintiff under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 because filing of the case, which was barred by res judicata, “is clearly intended to harass the opposing parties and delay the inevitable foreclosure of property in question.”) There simply was no excuse for Nguyen’s pursuit of Khan’s duplicative and barred causes of action. Nguyen’s conduct violated Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 and merits the sanctions sought by Wells Fargo.
Finally, a significant financial sanction is appropriate to emphasize the seriousness of the misconduct and to deter future misconduct. See Doc. 264 at 58-59; Norelus, 628 F.3d at 1298-99. The attorney’s fees Generations incurred as a result of the renewed motion and first appeal are relatively small in context, and, as the Court has explained, the misconduct was outrageous, aspects of the defense were shocking, and sanctioned counsel show no understanding of why their actions were inappropriate. Sanctioned counsel have emphasized their nationwide experience in large class actions, e.g., Doc. 246-1 at ¶¶ 6, 8, and sanctioned counsel and their firms have appeared in courts across the country on behalf of putative class members. Given the brazen nature of their original misconduct, their willingness to engage in cynical gamesmanship and deliberate obfuscation, and the risk of harm to vulnerable putative class members in cases across the country from such inappropriate litigation tactics, a small financial sanction will not be an adequate deterrent.