An Unusual Decision – Misstatements In A Rule 37 Sanctions Motion Not Subject to Sanctions


The case is Lee v. Horton, 2-17-cv-2766 (Western District of Tennessee December 4, 2018). What makes this opinion unusual and worth reading is that the court concluded that certain misstatements in a motion for sanctions were not themselves subject to sanctions. Lee was injured in an accident. She sued Horton, a truck driver, and Kroger. Lee filed a motion to sanctions under Rule 37 in which she alleged that Kroger had destroyed the electronic logs of the Kroger truck. Lee’s motion for Rule 37 sanctions was denied. Lee’s counsel apparently clarified the factual allegations in a court hearing and admitted that some of them were, in fact, inaccurate.

The defendants then filed their own Rule 11 motion alleging that Lee had made numerous false statements in the Motion for Rule 37 sanctions. That motion was denied by the Magistrate Judge. The Defendants then appealed to the District Judge who adopted the Magistrate’s findings. No sanctions were issued.

The District Court agreed that Rule 11 did not apply:

The Magistrate Judge found that Lee’s statements were made in a Rule 37(e) motion for spoliation sanctions and were therefore outside the scope of Rule 11. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 11(d). (Supplemental Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 104 at 1382-84.) Rule 11 “does not apply to . . . motions under Rules 26 through 37.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 11(d). Defendants have not objected to this finding, and the Court therefore reviews it for clear error. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b) advisory committee notes.

Defendants have argued that “Plaintiff’s original Motion for Sanctions is nothing more than a defamatory narrative seeking a summary judgment as to compensatory and punitive damages.” (ECF No. 49-1 at 573.) The Court does not agree. Lee’s Motion explicitly seeks relief for alleged spoliation. (P.’s Mot. Sanctions, ECF No. 34 at 282 (“Lee prays for the following: (a) Sanctions against Kroger and Horton, jointly and severally, for intentional destruction of material evidence.”).) While Lee also asked for “summary judgment” as a sanction, (P.’s Mot. Sanctions, ECF No. 34 at 282) Rule 37(e)(2)(c) establishes default judgment as a possible penalty for intentional spoliation. The Court concurs with the Magistrate Judge’s finding that Lee’s statements were contained in a motion for sanctions brought pursuant to Rule 37(e), rather than Rule 56. The Court finds that Lee’s Motion for Sanctions is therefore outside the scope of Rule 11. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 11(d).

In their Reply in support of their Motion, Defendants have also argued that “the crux of Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions is targeting Plaintiff’s counsel’s misrepresentations and conduct unrelated to any underlying discovery dispute.” (ECF No. 49-1 at 573-74.) The Court notes that Defendants’ original Motion for Sanctions, by its plain text, does seek sanctions for conduct related to an underlying discovery dispute. “Plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions makes numerous factual contentions that have zero evidentiary support.” (Id. at 495.) “Plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions makes numerous legal contentions in direct contrast to the authority provided.” (Id. at 497.) “Plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions is presented to harass, cause unnecessary delay, and to needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” (Id. at 498.) Almost all of the specific statements cited by Defendants as inaccuracies were made in the Motion for Sanctions. (See generally Id., see also P.’s Mot Sanctions ECF No. 34.) The Court concurs with the Magistrate Judge that Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions is outside the scope of Rule 11(b). (Supplemental Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 104 at 1384.)

Even if the Rule 11(d) exception for discovery-related “motions” does not include the factual and legal contentions contained within those motions, the Magistrate Judge concluded that Lee’s representations during an August 21, 2018 hearing clarified any previous inaccuracies. (Supp. Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 104 at 1384-85.) Defendants have not objected to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion regarding the hearing. The Magistrate Judge determined that additional deterrence was unnecessary when viewing Lee’s conduct as a whole. (Supp. Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 104 at 1384-85.) The Court has broad powers to impose sanctions, so long as they are “limited to what suffices to deter repetition of the conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 11(c)(4). The Court finds that it was not clearly erroneous for the Magistrate Judge to conclude based on subsequent clarifications that Lee’s conduct does not warrant sanctions.

28 U.S.C. 1927 did not apply either.

The Magistrate Judge previously found that Lee’s allegation that Defendants falsified trip sheets lacked evidentiary support. (ECF No. 61 at 694; Def.’s Obj. Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 93 at 1070.) Defendants specifically object that advancing a contention for which there is no evidence should be sanctionable under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. (Def.’s Obj. Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 93 at 1070.) The Court notes that Lee’s allegation of falsification does not appear in her Motion for Sanctions or her Reply. (See ECF Nos. 34, 37.) Neither the Magistrate Judge nor Defendants provide a specific citation for where this allegation was made in any filing. (See ECF No. 61 at 694; Def.’s Obj. Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 93 at 1070.) The record instead suggests that this argument was made in oral argument before the Magistrate Judge on August 21, 2018. (See ECF No. 46.) To be clear, a lawyer should not make statements in Court that lack evidentiary support. On a review of the record, however, the Court considers this argument to be a last-ditch effort that was dismissed out of hand rather than a multiplication of proceedings. While certainly indicative of a lack of care or knowledge, the Court does not find that this rises to a sanctionable level under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, given its limited impact.

The Court next considers whether the legal arguments contained within Lee’s Motion for Sanctions are sanctionable under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. Having reviewed the cases and federal regulations at issue, the Court finds that, while Lee’s arguments were incorrect, such misreadings are attributable to incompetence or negligence. The Court also notes that Defendants’ claim that such misrepresentations are “continuous” appears to be incorrect. Defendants only cite one motion in support of this argument, (Defs.’ Mot. Sanctions, ECF No. 40 at 497-98) and do not object to the Magistrate Judge’s finding that Lee’s counsel made significant clarifications at a subsequent hearing. (Supplemental Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 104 at 1385.) Court concurs with the Magistrate Judge that Lee’s legal arguments were wrong, but not frivolous. (See generally id. (finding under Rule 11 that “Lee’s counsel’s misinterpretation of . . . various legal arguments, while ultimately rejected by the court, do not amount to conduct that would be sanctionable.”) Given that the Defendants have not objected to the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the legal arguments in question were not sanctionable under Rule 11, and the fact that Lee’s counsel clarified Lee’s position at a subsequent motion hearing, the Court finds that these legal arguments are also not sanctionable under 28 U.S.C. §1927.

Conclusion: Lee’s lawyer was lucky here because he made misstatements on the record in an effort to obtain Rule 37 sanctions. Those statements were not accurate and, in my opinion, Lee’s lawyer was fortunate to escape some form of sanctions for this behavior. Apparently, his decision to admit he was wrong at oral argument before the Magistrate Judge saved him from sanctions.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

The Clinton Law Firm

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