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In re Jumper

October 19, 2006


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (INT-184-02) (Hon. José M. López, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge

Argued April 19, 2006

Before FISHER, Associate Judge, and NEBEKER and SCHWELB,*fn1 Senior Judges.

In these consolidated appeals, appellants William N. Rogers and Allen P. Anderson challenge the trial court's assessment of counsel fees against them as sanctions pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11. We conclude that sanctions under Rule 11 are not available due to non-compliance with the Rule's "safe harbor" provision and that the trial court made no express finding of bad faith to support an exercise of the court's inherent authority to impose sanctions. Accordingly, we hereby reverse the award of fee sanctions and remand the case for a finding regarding the existence of bad faith vel non.

I. Background

This case arises out of a dispute between interested parties and their respective counsel over the estate arrangements of now-deceased Sally A. Jumper. Following a motion for sanctions pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11, the trial court held three days of hearings on the matter and ultimately assessed appellants Allen Anderson and William N. Rogers $45,095.62 in counsel fees and expenses.*fn2 The trial court concluded that the appellants, among other things: (1) improperly filed a petition to appoint a guardian and conservator for Ms. Jumper despite the existence of estate planning documents of which appellants either were or reasonably should have been aware; (2) failed to inform parties "whose participation was necessary for full and proper adjudication of the matter" that they had filed the petition; (3) "impaired the [trial court's] access to critical information on which to base the [c]court's judgment and Orders"; (4) asserted that Ms. Jumper's estate was in danger of being "wasted or dissipated" despite having no evidence to support this assertion; (5) filed the petition for improper purposes, including "Anderson's hostility" toward Colonel Jan Verfuth, fiduciary of the Sally Jumper Trust; (6) "acted in derogation of the Rules of [the trial court] in seeking discovery of confidential information after the court vacated [Anderson's] appointment as [Ms. Jumper's] Guardian"; and (7) met with Ms. Jumper outside the presence of her attorney without notifying her attorney or advising Ms. Jumper to consult her attorney, and convinced her to make changes to her estate plan that were favorable to appellant Anderson. According to the trial court, appellants' conduct not only violated Rule 11, but also "borders on contempt of [court] and constitutes serious violations of the D.C. Rules of Professional conduct." However, the trial court did not specify, at least explicitly, whether it found that appellants' conduct was in "bad faith."

II. Sanctions Pursuant to Rule 11

The trial court assessed sanctions pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11, which provides in part: "If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that subdivision (b) has been violated, the court may, subject to the conditions stated below, impose an appropriate sanction upon the attorneys, law firms, or parties that have violated subdivision (b) or are responsible for the violation." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11 (c) (2003) (emphasis added). Since the assessment of sanctions is a matter committed to the discretion of the trial court, we review to determine the existence of an informed exercise of discretion and for an abuse of it. See In re Estate of King, 769 A.2d 771, 780 (D.C. 2001); Johnson v. United States, 398 A.2d 354, 361-67 (D.C. 1979). "An exercise of discretion must rest on correct legal principles . . . and a discretionary decision based on an 'erroneous premise' cannot stand." Breezevale Ltd. v. Dickinson, 759 A.2d 627, 640 (D.C. 2000) (citation omitted), aff'd on reh'g, 783 A.2d 573, 575 (D.C. 2001) (en banc).

We hold that the trial court erred as a matter of law when it imposed sanctions pursuant to Rule 11 even though the moving party failed to comply with the "safe harbor" provision contained within the Rule. In relevant part, Rule 11 provides:

A motion for sanctions under this rule . . . shall be served as provided in Rule 5, but shall not be filed with or presented to the court unless, within 21 days after service of the motion (or such other period as the court may prescribe), the challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, allegation, or denial is not withdrawn or appropriately corrected.

Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11 (c)(1)(A) (2003). This court has required compliance with the safe harbor provision in order for sanctions to be awarded pursuant to Rule 11. See Goldberg. Marchesano. Kohlman. Inc. v. Old Republic Sur. Co., 727 A.2d 858, 863 (D.C. 1999) ("The plain language of the rule indicates that this notice and opportunity prior to filing is mandatory."). In the present case, the moving parties failed to comply with the safe harbor provision by not serving appellants with notice and permitting them a chance to withdraw or correct the challenged papers before presenting the motion to the court. This defect is fatal to the imposition of sanctions pursuant to Rule 11, id. at 864, and thus the court erred by ignoring the safe harbor requirement. That error cannot be corrected by a latter day safe harbor exercise; that "bell" has already been "rung."*fn3

III. Sanctions Pursuant to Inherent Authority

The conclusion that Rule 11 sanctions are unavailable does not end our inquiry in this case, as "this court may affirm a decision for reasons other than those given by the trial court." Chevalier, supra note 2, 576 A.2d at 724. Thus, we find it necessary to consider also whether the imposition of sanctions might, none-the-less, be deemed a proper exercise of the trial court's inherent authority.

Apart from the authority granted pursuant to Rule 11, the Superior Court has the inherent authority to award sanctions in appropriate circumstances for intentional abuse of the litigation process. In re Estate of Delaney, 819 A.2d 968, 998 (D.C. 2003). As ...

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