Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Tim C. Murphy, Trial Judge
Ferren, Belson, and Farrell, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren
Defendant-appellant, Office & Professional Employees International Union, Local No. 2 ("OPEIU") appeals the trial court's summary denial of OPEIU's motion for attorney's fees and/or sanctions under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11. Plaintiff-appellee, International Brotherhood of Painters & Allied Trades, AFL-CIO-CFL ("the Painters Union"), had filed a libel suit against OPEIU in Superior Court. In its answer, OPEIU disclaimed any involvement in the allegedly libelous publication, just as it had done in a letter to the Painters Union before the Painters Union had instituted its suit. Two months after OPEIU filed its answer, the Painters Union moved to dismiss its own suit. In response, OPEIU moved for attorney's fees and/or Rule 11 sanctions. The Painters Union's opposition to that motion indicated that it had not believed OPEIU's initial disclaimer and that it had received "independent information" that OPEIU had indeed issued the allegedly libelous publication. The court dismissed the Painters Union's action without prejudice and summarily denied OPEIU's request for sanctions.
On appeal, OPEIU argues it is entitled to attorney's fees and/or Rule 11 sanctions as a matter of law on any one of three theories: (1) the Painters Union failed to make any factual inquiry; (2) the Painters Union's libel suit was not warranted by existing law or by a good faith argument for the extension of existing law; and (3) the Painters Union interposed the suit for an improper purpose. In light of the Painters Union's failure to disclose in its pleadings or elsewhere -- even after OPEIU had moved for Rule 11 sanctions -- any inquiry which supported the factual allegations it made in its complaint, we conclude that counsel for the Painters Union violated Rule 11 as a matter of law. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's denial of appellant's motion and remand the case for a determination of the appropriate sanction.
This case developed in the context of two separate labor disputes: one between OPEIU and the Painters Union and another between OPEIU and the International Association of Fire Fighters ("IAFF"). OPEIU represents (for collective bargaining purposes) the professional and clerical employees of both the Painters Union and the IAFF.
In late July and early August 1988, the IAFF held its biannual convention. At that time, OPEIU was involved in a labor dispute with the IAFF. On or about August 1, 1988, an unsigned one-page "fact sheet," appearing on OPEIU stationery, was circulated at the IAFF convention. After reciting allegations against various officials of the IAFF, the "fact sheet" stated:
The above examples represent a serious breach of union ethics and are designed to break our union as. . . the Painters' Union is attempting to do.
On August 1, 1988, the president of OPEIU sent the officers of the IAFF a letter disclaiming distribution of the "fact sheet." The letter stated in relevant part:
I have been informed that a crude, unsigned, one-page flyer using OPEIU Local 2 letterhead has been distributed at the IAFF Convention. THAT LETTERHEAD WAS STOLEN. OPEIU LOCAL 2 HAS DISTRIBUTED NO FLYER AT THE CONVENTION. MOREOVER, THAT FLYER DOES NOT ACCURATELY REFLECT EITHER THE FACTS OR OPEIU'S POSITION.
(capitalization in original.) The letter then stated that OPEIU planned to contact enforcement authorities about the matter. It also stated that OPEIU would circulate to the convention its actual views in a four-page newsletter, and it requested that the IAFF confiscate all "fraudulent flyers" and not interfere with distribution of any "genuine OPEIU-authorized literature piece." On August 3, 1988, OPEIU filed a criminal complaint with the Miami Beach Police Department.
On August 5, 1988, officers of the Painters Union sent representatives of OPEIU a letter regarding the "fact sheet." The letter state that the Painters Union had "been made aware of the libelous leaflets that you have been distributing at the International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO Convention in Florida regarding the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades and our dispute in Washington, D.C." (emphasis omitted.) A representative of OPEIU responded in a letter dated August 11, 1988, which stated in relevant part:
I was perplexed by you reference to "libelous leaflets" that were purported to have been distributed by OPEIU, Local 2 at the International Association of Fire Fighter's Convention in Florida regarding the dispute between Local 2 and the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades.
The only distribution by Local 2 at the IAFF Convention was a newsletter entitled "Labor's Family" (see enclosure). I have read this newsletter completely and there is absolutely no mention of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades or our dispute. I can only assume that your letter is referring to a bogus forgery that was printed on stolen Local 2 letterhead. This letter is a fraud. ...