United States District Court, D. Columbia
August 18, 2005.
HERMAN T. DOVE, Plaintiff,
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICARDO URBINA, District Judge
DENYING DEFENDANT WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT
AUTHORITY'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS; DENYING DEFENDANT LOCAL 689,
AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS; AND DENYING THE
DEFENDANTS' JOINT AMENDED MOTION FOR SANCTIONS
This matter comes before the court on three motions for Rule 11
sanctions: one lodged by the defendant Washington Metropolitan
Area Transit Authority ("WMATA"), the second lodged by Local 689,
Amalgamated Transit Union ("Local 689" or the "Union"), and the
third lodged jointly by the Union and WMATA. The plaintiff filed
the instant action against WMATA on September 15, 2003, and
subsequently added the Union as a defendant. On December 23,
2004, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed all of his claims
against the Union. On July 29, 2005, the court granted summary
judgment to defendant WMATA. Because the court concludes that the
plaintiff's conduct does not meet the threshold required to
impose Rule 11 sanctions, it denies all of the defendants'
motions for sanctions. II. BACKGROUND
The court will restate only those facts necessary to resolve
the pending motions.*fn1 The plaintiff was employed by the
defendant WMATA beginning in 1973. Mem. Op. (Mar. 30, 2004)
("Mem. Op.") at 1. WMATA terminated and subsequently reinstated
the plaintiff's employment in 1997. Mem. Op. at 2; see also Dove
v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12443,
at *1 (D.D.C. Aug. 5, 1999). As a condition of the plaintiff's
reinstatement, the Union agreed with WMATA that the plaintiff's
employment would be terminated if another customer complaint was
filed against him. Def. WMATA's Mot. at 3. In April 2002, a
customer filed a complaint against the plaintiff and his
employment was terminated. Def. WMATA's Mot. at 3.
On September 15, 2003, the plaintiff filed the instant action
in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. Mem. Op. at
2. WMATA later removed the action to this court. Not. of Removal
(citing D.C. Official Code § 9-1107.01(81) (granting the federal
district courts original jurisdiction over all claims against
WMATA)). The plaintiff amended his complaint on July 27, 2004, to
modify his claims and to add the Union as a defendant. His
amended complaint alleges wrongful termination, defamation and
libel, unfair labor practices, and conspiracy on the part of
WMATA, as well as conspiracy, breach of contract, and false
representation by Local 689. See generally Am. Compl.
On December 23, 2004, the plaintiff and the Union filed a
Stipulation of Dismissal whereby the plaintiff voluntarily
dismissed with prejudice all of his claims against the Union. Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice ("Dismissal") at 1. The
Union retained the right to file a motion for Rule 11 sanctions
against the plaintiff, which it did on January 4, 2005. See
generally Def. Local 689's Mot. for Sanctions (Jan. 4, 2005)
("Def. Local 689's Mot."). On January 10, 2005, WMATA moved for
summary judgment as to all of the plaintiff's claims against it,
which the court granted on July 29, 2005. In addition, WMATA
moved for Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiff on February 8,
2005. Def. WMATA's Mot. for Sanctions (Feb. 8, 2005) ("Def.
WMATA's Mot."). On July 28, 2005, the defendants filed an amended
joint motion for sanctions. Def. WMATA & Def. Local 689's Am.
Mot. for Sanctions ("Jt. Mot."). The court now addresses the
three Rule 11 motions in turn.
A. Legal Standard for a Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, the court may impose
sanctions on attorneys or unrepresented parties if "a pleading,
written motion, or other paper . . . [is] presented for any
improper purpose[;] . . . the claims, defenses, and other legal
contentions therein are [un]warranted by existing law[;] . . .
the allegations and other factual contentions have [no]
evidentiary support[; or] the denials of factual contentions are
[un]warranted on the evidence[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b). There
are procedural and substantive requirements set forth in the Rule
that must be met before a court may impose sanctions. See Edmond
v. United States Attorney, 959 F. Supp. 1, 5 (D.D.C. 1997); see
generally 2-11 Moore's Federal Practice § 11.23 (2004).
Rule 11 mandates that sanctions be imposed only "after notice
and a reasonable opportunity to respond[.]" FED. R. CIV. P.
11(c); see also Nuwesra v. Merrill Lynch, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 174 F.3d 87, 92 (2d Cir. 1999) (discussing the due
process requirements prior to imposing sanctions that "a
sanctioned attorney must receive specific notice of the conduct
alleged to be sanctionable and the standard by which that conduct
will be assessed, and an opportunity to be heard on that
matter"). Rule 11 also requires that "[a] motion for sanctions . . .
shall be served [on the opposing party] . . . and shall not
be filed unless, within 21 days after service of [such] motion, . . .
the challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, allegation,
or denial is not withdrawn or appropriately corrected." FED. R.
CIV. P. 11(c)(1)(A); Elliott v. Tilton, 64 F.3d 213, 216 (5th
Cir. 1995) (holding that the court was precluded from granting
the plaintiff's Rule 11 sanctions motion because the plaintiff
failed to serve the motion on the defense counsel, which deprived
the defense counsel of the 21 day safe harbor to withdraw or
correct the alleged offending conduct); U.S. v. BCCI Holdings
(Luxembourg), S.A., 176 F.R.D. 1, 2 (D.D.C. 1997) (concluding
that "the government's letter to petitioners' counsel [was] too
tentative to provide the functional equivalent of `safe harbor'
Rule 11 also requires that a motion for sanctions be filed
separately from other motions or requests and describe the
specific conduct that is allegedly deserving of sanctions. FED.
R. CIV. P. 11(c)(1)(A); see also Hadges v. Yonkers Racing
Corp., 48 F.3d 1320, 1323, 1328 (2d Cir. 1995) (denying a
request for sanctions that the movant included in his motion to
dismiss); S.E.C. v. Rivlin, No. 99-1455, 1999 WL 1455758, at *6
(D.D.C. 1999) (denying Rule 11 sanctions because the motion was
added to the end of the amended answer).
As for the substantive requirements of Rule 11, the court
applies "an objective standard of reasonable inquiry on
represented parties who sign papers or pleadings." Bus. Guides,
Inc. v. Chromatic Communications Enterprises, 498 U.S. 533, 554
(1991). The imposition of Rule 11 sanctions is not something the court takes lightly; Rule 11
sanctions are an extreme punishment for filing pleadings that
frustrate judicial proceedings. Trout v. Garrett,
780 F. Supp. 1396, 1428 (D.D.C. 1991) (noting that "the blunt instrument of
sanctions against individual attorneys ought to be applied with
restraint"). When a party's motion is "sufficiently well grounded
and warranted by existing law," the party's failure to sustain
his or her burden of proof on the motion "does not ipso facto
violate the standards of Rule 11." Bantefa v. Tyson, No. CIV.A.
84-3937, 1987 WL 8710, at *1 (D.D.C. 1987) (denying the
defendant's motion for sanctions that was filed in response to
plaintiff's unsuccessful motion for relief from judgment).
Similarly, where a party's "request for a stay of proceedings is
based upon good faith assessments and due diligence efforts,"
sanctions are inappropriate under the substantive requirements of
Rule 11. Edmond, 959 F. Supp. at 5 (finding that there was a
lack of malicious motive in the defendant's request for a stay of
the proceedings). On the other hand, a district court does not
abuse its discretion when it imposes Rule 11 sanctions against a
defendant whose counterclaims are designed primarily to harass
the plaintiff. Marina Mgmt. Services, Inc. v. Vessel My Girls,
202 F.3d 315, 325 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (finding sanctionable a
defamation counterclaim "which included allegations not
necessarily integrally linked to the legitimacy of the debt
recovery action"); see also Hilton Hotels Corp. v. Banov,
899 F.2d 40, 43-44 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (affirming the district court's
finding that the defendant "failed to make a reasonable inquiry
into the factual basis of the amended complaint" and upholding
the imposition of Rule 11 sanctions).
The court also has the authority to impose Rule 11 sanctions
sua sponte. FED. R. CIV. P. 11(c)(1)(B). This inherent power,
as the D.C. Circuit recognized, "guard[s] against abuses of the
judicial process." Shepherd v. Am. Board. Co., 62 F.3d 1469,
1472 (D.C. Cir. 1995). In this regard, Rule 11 serves the purpose of protecting the court from
"frivolous and baseless filings that are not well grounded,
legally untenable, or brought with the purpose of vexatiously
multiplying the proceedings." Cobell v. Norton, 211 F.R.D. 7,
10 (D.D.C. 2002) (quoting Cobell v. Norton, 157 F. Supp. 2d 82,
86 n. 8 (D.D.C. 2001)). If the court determines that the motive
and intent of the offending party is to harass the other party,
or that a party has otherwise violated Rule 11(b), it has the
inherent power to consider a Rule 11 sanctions motion sua
sponte by issuing an order directing the offending party to show
case why it has not violated Rule 11(b). FED. R. CIV. P.
11(c)(1)(B); see McLaughlin v. Brandlee, 602 F. Supp. 1412
(D.D.C. 1985), aff'd 803 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1986). When the
court exercises its discretion and imposes sanctions sua
sponte, it is not required to provide the party with the safe
harbor period, as is required in Rule 11(c)(1)(A). Compare FED.
R. CIV. P. 11(c)(1)(B) (containing no explicit safe harbor
provision) with FED. R. CIV. P. 11(c)(1)(A) (containing an
explicit safe harbor provision); see, e.g., Elliot v. Tilton,
64 F.3d 213, 216 (5th Cir. 1995) (distinguishing between the safe
harbor required when sanctions are requested by motion and the
absence of the safe harbor requirement when the court is acting
sua sponte). The court further notes that a frivolous Rule 11
sanction motion may itself be a violation of Rule 11. FED. R.
CIV. P. 11.
Finally, this court has the "discretion to determine both
whether a Rule 11 violation has occurred and what sanctions
should be imposed if there has been a violation." Cobell,
211 F.R.D. at 10 (citations omitted). This court's grant or denial of
a Rule 11 motion for sanctions is reviewed under an abuse of
discretion standard. Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp.,
496 U.S. 384, 405 (1990); Geller, 40 F.3d at 1303. 2. The Court Denies WMATA's Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions
WMATA argues that the plaintiff's complaint and amended
complaint are so riddled with deficiencies that the author is
sanctionable. See generally Def. WMATA's Mot. First, the court
rejects WMATA's request to impose sanctions based on claims
contained only in the plaintiff's original complaint.
Deficiencies in that complaint, which the plaintiff amended
approximately one year ago to omit some of his claims against
WMATA and modify others, does not warrant the extreme punishment
of Rule 11 sanctions. See Trout, 780 F. Supp. at 1428.
With regard to the alleged deficiencies in the plaintiff's
amended complaint, WMATA, repeating the arguments set forth in
its motion for summary judgment, contends that there is
"substantial evidence that the Plaintiff's litigation strategy is
guided by something other than the law and the facts." Id. at
15-16; see also Def. WMATA's Mot. for Summ. J. The court
disagrees. Although the claims contained in the plaintiff's
amended complaint were sufficiently ill-founded to merit the
granting of summary judgment, a consideration of Rule 11
sanctions involves more than an inquiry into the objective merits
of a complaint. See Cooter & Gell, 496 U.S. at 401-402;
Westmoreland v. CBS, 770 F.2d 1168, 1174 (D.C. Cir. 1985)
(noting that the courts have wide discretionary power to impose
Rule 11 sanctions because "they have tasted the flavor of the
litigation" and are in the best position to make Rule 11
determinations.) Simply stated, the defendant fails to persuade
the court that the plaintiff and his counsel did not exercise due
diligence in investigating the plaintiff's allegations, or that
they brought this action in an effort to harass WMATA or to
frustrate judicial proceedings. For these reasons, the court
denies WMATA's motion for Rule 11 sanctions. 3. The Court Denies Local 689's Motion for Rule 11
The plaintiff contends that at the November 30, 2004
deposition, he became aware of certain facts that caused him to
reevaluate his claims against the Union. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.
Local 689's Mot. ("Pl.'s Opp'n to Union") at 5. On December 7,
2004, the Union notified the plaintiff of its intention to move
for Rule 11 sanctions, and the plaintiff withdrew his action
against the Union within the 21-day safe harbor period. Id. at
4; see also Stipulation of Dismissal.
The intent of the safe harbor provision contained in Rule 11 is
to "provid[e] protection against sanctions if [parties] withdraw
or correct contentions after a potential violation is called to
their attention." FED. R. CIV. P. 11(c) Advisory Committee Notes.
Because the plaintiff dismissed all of his claims against the
Union within the safe harbor period, the court concludes that
imposing sanctions against him would frustrate the rule's
purpose. Id.; see also Long v. U.S. Dep't of Justice,
207 F.R.D. 4, 7 (D.D.C. 2002) (stating that the defendant "adequately
met its obligation [under Rule 11] by candidly admitting that
errors exist[ed in its motion] and attempting to correct the
mistakes . . . before plaintiffs filed their motion for
sanctions"). Accordingly, the court denies Local 689's Rule 11
motion. Additionally, the factors that lead the court to deny
WMATA's Rule 11 motion apply equally to the consideration of the
Union's motion. 4. The Court Denies Local 689 and WMATA's Joint Amended Rule 11
The court also denies defendants Union and WMATA's joint
amended Rule 11 motion because there is no evidence that the
defendants complied with the safe harbor procedural requirements
of giving the opposing party "notice and a reasonable opportunity
to respond[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 11(c); see also Nuwesra,
174 F.3d at 92; Hadges v. Yonkers Racing Corp., 48 F.3d 1320, 1328
(2d Cir. 1995) (denying the defendant's Rule 11 motion in part
because there was "no evidence in the record indicating that [the
defendant] served [the plaintiff] with the request for sanctions
21 days before presenting it to the court").
Furthermore, even if the defendants had complied with the safe
harbor requirement, the court would still deny the defendants'
amended Rule 11 motion. While Cote v. James River Corporation,
761 F.2d 60 (1st Cir. 1985) the case forming the entire basis
amended motion is factually similar to the instant action, it
does not change this court's determination on the propriety of
imposing sanctions against the plaintiff. Even if the Cote
decision were binding authority in this district, the decision to
impose sanctions depends on the totality of the circumstances and
requires a case-by-case analysis. See Cooter & Gell,
496 U.S. at 401-402; Westmoreland v. CBS, 770 F.2d 1168, 1174 (D.C. Cir.
1985). Based on all of the circumstances described above, the
court concludes that Rule 11 sanctions are not proper. IV. CONCLUSION
For all the foregoing reasons, the court denies the motions for
Rule 11 sanctions filed by WMATA and the Union individually and
jointly. An order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion is
separately and contemporaneously issued this 18th day of August
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