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MORRISON v. INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS CONSORTIUM

January 22, 2003

CYNTHIA MORRISON, PLAINTIFF,
V.
INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS CONSORTIUM, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS



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 denied.

BACKGROUND

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.

On September 3, 2002, a jury panel of 25 persons was assembled in the jury lounge for this trial. Plaintiff and her counsel appeared on time for trial. Neither Lewis nor his co-counsel nor the defendants appeared. The courtroom deputy clerk telephoned Lewis's office and home without success, but ultimately reached his co-counsel, Ernest Baynard. Baynard said he was unaware of the trial date and that he and his clients would not be ready to proceed if the court delayed the start of trial until the afternoon.*fn2 The 25 jurors, not being needed for jury selection for any other trial that day, were dismissed without being utilized.

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.

DISCUSSION

I. DEFAULT JUDGMENT

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 1077.

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.

II. LESSER SANCTIONS

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 ...


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