The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts, District Judge.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Cynthia Morrison filed this lawsuit alleging that the
defendants employed her but failed to pay her the minimum wages and
overtime required by law.*fn1 Plaintiff moved for default judgment
because neither the defendants nor their attorneys appeared for trial on
the date selected during a hearing attended by defendants' counsel, E.
Grey Lewis. Because Lewis knowingly and intentionally failed to appear
for the trial, and because his conduct unreasonably and vexatiously
multiplied the proceedings, Lewis will be required to satisfy personally
the resulting excess costs, expenses, and attorneys' fees. However,
because default judgment would be too drastic a sanction against
defendants for their attorney's misconduct, plaintiff's motion will be
On March 15, 2002, this Court held a status conference in open court on
the record attended by Lewis and by Jerry Goldstein, counsel for the
plaintiff. After questioning counsel concerning their availability, the
Court set the case for trial on September 3, 2002 at 9:30 a.m.
The plaintiff then moved for judgment. The Court orally directed that
default judgment be entered against defendants*fn3 and directed
plaintiff to submit a draft judgment and motion for fees and costs.*fn4
The Court also ordered defendants' counsel to show cause why they should
not be required to pay the costs of assembling the jury and the costs of
plaintiff's travel to attend court that day. Lewis later left a voicemail
message for the courtroom deputy clerk stating that he did not appear
because he was waiting for, but never received, a written order
memorializing the trial date.*fn5 Defendants have opposed the entry of
default judgment and argued that sanctions are not warranted.
Federal courts have the inherent authority to dismiss a plaintiff's
complaint or enter default judgment against a defendant in order to
"prevent undue delays in the disposition of pending cases and to avoid
congestion in the calendars of the District Courts." See Link v. Wabash
Railroad Co., 370 U.S. 626, 629-30 (1962); see also Butera v. District of
Columbia, 235 F.3d 637, 661 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (holding that a district
court may order sanctions, including a default judgment, pursuant to the
court's inherent power to "protect [its] integrity and prevent abuses of
the judicial process"). Generally, there are three justifications for the
imposition of default judgment as a sanction for misconduct: "(1)
prejudice to the other party, (2) prejudice to the judicial system
requiring the district court to modify its own docket and operations to
accommodate the delay, and (3) the need to sanction conduct that is
disrespectful to the court and to deter similar conduct in the future."
Butera, 235 F.3d at 661 (citing Webb v. District of Columbia, 146 F.3d 964,
971 (D.C. Cir. 1998); Shea v. Donohoe Construction Co., Inc.,
795 F.2d 1071, 1074-77 (D.C. Cir. 1986)).
Default judgment, however, is a very severe sanction and is contrary to
the "judicial system's strong presumption in favor of adjudications on
the merits." See Shepherd v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.,
62 F.3d 1469, 1475 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Default judgment is a "drastic
step, normally to be taken only after unfruitful resort to lesser
sanctions."*fn6 Id. at 1478 (citations omitted). Moreover, the sins of
an attorney should not be visited upon the innocent client. Shea, 795
F.2d at 1077-78. Where, as here, "the client[s'] only fault is [their]
poor choice of counsel," default judgment is a "disproportionate sanction"
and an attempt should first be made to sanction the attorney. Id. at
There is no evidence in this case that the defendants knew of or
participated in Lewis's misconduct. Permitting Lewis's misconduct to
deprive his clients of their opportunity to defend successfully against a
potential six-figure judgment is neither necessary nor appropriate in
order to vindicate the Court's interests. Lesser sanctions targeted
against Lewis for his misconduct here would suffice and would preserve
the defendants' opportunity for their day in court.
The Court has the inherent authority to impose sanctions against an
attorney for misconduct. The misconduct "must constitute `bad faith' to
justify invoking the court's inherent powers." United States v. Wallace,
964 F.2d 1214, 1217 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Bad faith must be established by
clear and convincing ...