This is a case where a lawyer was sanctioned pursuant to Rule 11 for false statements in his client’s affidavit. The affidavit was introduced in an effort to fight a change of venue motion. The court, after hearing, concluded that the client’s false statement was the fault of his lawyer and awarded sanctions. In SyncPoint Imaging, LLC v. Nintendo of America, Inc. 15-cv-00247 pending in the Eastern District of Texas, the parties apparently became embroiled in a venue dispute. Plaintiff was represented by Joseph Pia. The client representative was Karl Hansen.
The court found that in resisting Nintendo’s venue motion, the plaintiff included false statements in an affidavit. The court entered a rule to show cause and held a hearing on the rule. The interesting issue is that the court absolved the client, who signed the false affidavit, from liability. The court reasoned that the client did not understand what he signed. The reasoning:
Here, representations about the alleged SyncPoint consultants were made in Paragraph 61 of Hansen’s declaration, which was submitted in response to Nintendo’s venue motion. Nintendo’s venue motion was brought under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Since “the availability of compulsory process to secure the attendance of witnesses” is a key factor in a § 1404(a) analysis, see In re Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 545 F.3d 304, 315 (5th Cir. 2008), the discussion of four potential witnesses — the SyncPoint consultants — in Paragraph 61 is a critical factual allegation.
Paragraph 61 is also a factual allegation that indisputably lacks evidentiary support. Two of the four nominal consultants had already declined to be involved with SyncPoint by the time the declaration was signed. Of the two remaining consultants, one had at most visited the SyncPoint office. Even if Dr. Thomas, Buechele, Vance, and Bland all agreed to visit SyncPoint’s office, Hansen’s email to Dr. Thomas indicates that the only “business” the alleged consultants were asked to conduct was picking up mail and making sure the server was still running. The declaration clearly implies that these four consultants conducted the business of SyncPoint and should thus be considered as potential witnesses. The email to Dr. Thomas is particularly concerning, as it makes clear that Hansen’s request was made solely to support venue, not to conduct SyncPoint’s business.
The Court finds that this email is necessarily the fault of Hansen’s attorney — Pia — not Hansen. Hansen’s email reflects what his lawyers must have told him to provide, since Hansen candidly admitted at the September 5, 2018 show cause hearing that he “didn’t know what matters in a venue.” Hr’g Tr. 21:16-23, [Dkt. No. 369].
Similarly, Paragraph 61 is also attributable to counsel. Pia admitted that he did not review Hansen’s declaration and never verified whether Dr. Thomas, Buechele, Vance, or Bland were truly SyncPoint consultants. This is especially troubling given that Pia had sufficient time to conduct a prefiling investigation into relatively straightforward factual contentions. In the month Pia took respond to Nintendo’s venue motion, Pia never investigated these venue facts. In fact, nearly three years later, the alleged consultants are still not known to Pia. While Pia advised the Court that he relied on a contract attorney to draft SyncPoint’s response to Nintendo’s venue motion, there has been no showing that the contract attorney was responsible for the misrepresentations in Paragraph 61, which was, in any event, made under Pia’s signature. Thus, there is simply no excuse for Pia’s failure to make a reasonable inquiry into these critical factual representations. Pia violated Rule 11.
As to Hansen, however, the Court finds that he is not jointly responsible for the false allegations in this matter. Rule 11(c)(1) authorizes the Court to impose sanctions on Pia, as the violating attorney, and on Hansen, as the party potentially responsible for the violation. A client is responsible for a Rule 11 violation if the client “know[s] that the filing and signing [of a pleading, motion, or other paper] is wrongful.” In re Motion for Sanctions Against Meyers, No. 4:12-MC-015-A, 2014 WL 1494099, at *8 (N.D. Tex. Apr. 16, 2014), supplemented, No. 4:12-MC-015-A, 2014 WL 1910621 (N.D. Tex. May 9, 2014) (citing Calloway v. Marvel Entm’t Grp., a Div. of Cadence Indus. Corp., 854 F.2d 1452, 1475 (2d Cir.1988) rev’d in part sub nom Pavelic & LeFlore v. Marvel Entm’t Grp., 493 U.S. 120 (1989)). In appropriate instances, the Fifth Circuit has held both the attorney and client jointly and severally liable. See Jennings v. Joshua Indep. School Dist., 948 F.2d 194, 196 (5th Cir. 1991). Here, Hansen’s testimony makes clear that he was not aware of the importance of Paragraph 61 and the need for precision in its wording. Therefore, sanctions against Hansen are inappropriate.
The court concluded that plaintiff’s attorney, Joseph Pia, was responsible for the erroneous statements in the affidavit.
Because Pia violated Rule 11(b)(3), the Court now examines what sanctions are appropriate. See Jennings, 948 F.2d at 197 (citing Business Guides, Inc. v. Chromatic Commc’ns Ent., Inc., 498 U.S. 533, 541-47 (1991)). Sanctions may be imposed either on motion or sua sponte. On its own, the Court may order an attorney, law firm, or party to show cause why such conduct specifically described in the order has not violated Rule 11(b). Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(3). If the Court determines that Rule 11(b) has been violated, the Court may impose an appropriate sanction on the attorney, law firm, or party responsible for the violation. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(1). The central purpose of court-imposed sanctions is to “deter baseless filings in district court.” Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 393 (1990).
Here, Pia’s admitted lack of diligence in investigating critical factual contentions represented to this Court is simply inexcusable. This matter has already concluded pursuant to the dismissal order, see [Dkt. No. 279]; [Dkt. No. 283], and there was no Rule 11 motion for sanctions. The Court is thus limited to imposing a nonmonetary sanction or a monetary penalty payable to the court. This Memorandum Opinion and Order shall serve as a public reprimand to Joseph G. Pia and an Order to him to submit a $1,000 fine payable to the Clerk of this Court within 30 days.
Comment: this decision is unusual because it puts the blame for a false statement in an affidavit squarely on the shoulders of the lawyer, not the client who signed the affidavit. This decision is an important reminder to be careful and prudent in practicing law. Don’t let a client say something that is not true – to the best of your ability.
Ed Clinton, Jr.
The Clinton Law Firm, LLC
A link to the decision is posted here. SyncPoint Imaging, LLC v. Nintendo of America, Inc.