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Williams v. Verizon Washington, D.C., Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 31, 2017

RICKIE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
VERIZON WASHINGTON, D.C. INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant Verizon Washington, D.C., Inc. (“Verizon”) asserts that, during the discovery phase of the instant litigation, Plaintiff Rickie Williams and his counsel Arinderjit Dhali produced evidence that “should have placed Plaintiff's counsel on notice that certain critical allegations in the Complaint are false” and “that the claims made in the Complaint are neither grounded in fact nor warranted under the law.” (Def.'s Mot. for Sanctions Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 14, at 1, 2.)[1] Verizon filed the motion for sanctions that is before this Court at present; pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, Verizon requests dismissal of Williams's lawsuit with prejudice and an award of attorneys' fees. (See Id. at 1.) The crux of Verizon's argument is that these sanctions are warranted because Dhali “failed to conduct [a] reasonable inquiry into the facts” (Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. (“Def.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 15, at 3), and also refused to withdraw Williams's claims or amend the complaint to reflect evidence that was brought to light during the discovery process (see Id. at 13 (“This case should never have been filed, but it certainly should have been withdrawn voluntarily months ago.”)).

         At a motion hearing held on February 28, 2017, this Court partially resolved Verizon's sanction motion. Specifically, the Court orally denied the motion insofar as Verizon sought outright dismissal of the complaint, but the Court took the motion under advisement insofar as it requested attorneys' fees. (See Feb. 28, 2017 Hr'g Tr. (“Hr'g Tr.”).) In support of the latter request, and at the Court's direction, Verizon subsequently filed a petition for attorneys' fees, which itemizes the fees that Verizon incurred in connection with its motion for sanctions. (See Def.'s Pet. for Attorneys' Fees (“Def.'s Pet.”), ECF No. 23, at 1.) As explained fully below, because Verizon has offered no evidence to suggest that Dhali conducted an inadequate pre-filing inquiry into the legal or factual basis for Plaintiff's claims, and because Rule 11 does not authorize the sanctioning of counsel for his post-filing refusal to amend or withdraw filings that are subsequently discredited (however ill-advised and inappropriate that refusal may be), this Court cannot conclude that Dhali's conduct violates the terms of Rule 11. Consequently, Verizon's motion for sanctions and petition for attorneys' fees must be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         All that is required to explain the Court's conclusion in this case is a brief recitation of the factual allegations in Williams's original complaint (which was filed on April 13, 2016), and a description of the evidence that the parties subsequently uncovered during the discovery process.

         A. The Facts Alleged In Williams's Original Complaint

         Rickie Williams began his employment as a Systems Technician at Verizon in 1979, and first applied for leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) in 2012. (See Compl., ECF No. 1-1, ¶¶ 5-7.) Williams's complaint alleges that Verizon violated the FMLA when it terminated him while he was on FMLA leave. (See Id. at 3.)

         The events leading up to Williams's termination occurred in or around the weekend of Friday, March 7, 2014. According to Williams's original complaint, he first experienced sinus and migraine problems on Thursday, March 6, 2014 (see Id. ¶ 12), and later that same day, received a call from his sister informing him that his aunt had passed away in New Orleans (see Id. ¶ 13). Williams told his sister that he was unsure whether he would be able to attend the funeral in light of his health issues. (See Id. ¶ 14.) The next day (Friday, March 7, 2014), Williams continued to feel unwell, and at about 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., Williams called the Verizon FMLA telephone line to inform Verizon that he would not be coming into work that day. (See Id. ¶ 15.) At the time he made this call, Williams intended to remain at home. (See Id. ¶ 17.) But approximately two to three hours later (i.e., around 8:00 or 9:00 a.m.), Williams changed his mind and decided to travel to New Orleans to care for his grieving family, reserving an airline ticket to New Orleans at that point. (See Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) The very next day, Saturday, March 8, 2014, Williams (who was then in New Orleans) again called the Verizon FMLA line and informed Verizon that he was not feeling well and would not be able to work on that date either. (See Id. ¶ 21.)

         Upon William's return to work the next week, Verizon conducted an investigation into Williams's two absences, and accused Williams of feigning his medical illnesses and misrepresenting his health status. (See Id. ¶¶ 28-30.) Based on the results of this investigation, on May 9, 2014, Verizon terminated Williams. (See Id. ¶ 33.) In his original two-count complaint, Williams contends that Verizon interfered with his FMLA rights (Count I) by denying his requests for FMLA leave on Friday, March 7, 2014, and Saturday, March 8, 2014, and further, that Verizon retaliated against him for seeking to exercise his FMLA rights (Count II) by accusing him of feigning his illness and subsequently terminating him. (See Id. ¶¶ 34-46.)

         B. Facts That Came To Light During Discovery

         During the course of discovery, Williams disclosed additional evidence that, according to Verizon, directly contravenes the allegations in Williams's original complaint. First, Verizon emphasizes that “[t]he entire thrust of the Complaint is that Williams made a last minute decision on the morning of [Friday] March 7, 2014 to attend his aunt's funeral in New Orleans after calling out sick for an FMLA-covered migraine[.]” (Def.'s Mem. at 3 (emphasis omitted).) However, Williams later produced to Verizon copies of his debit card records, which revealed that Williams had purchased a non-refundable airline ticket to New Orleans on March 5, 2014-two days before he called out sick. (See Id. at 4.) In addition, Williams's non-refundable flight was scheduled to leave Washington, D.C. at 6:45 a.m. on March 7th and to return to Baltimore at 2:38 p.m. on March 10th. (See id.) According to Verizon, this evidence “demonstrates that as of March 5, 2014-a day before he claims to have come down with a migraine-[Williams] had no intention of working on March 7, 8 and 10, 2014.” (Id. at 5.)

         Second, Verizon notes that Williams's own FMLA paperwork clearly indicates that Verizon in fact approved Williams's request for FMLA leave on March 7 and 8, 2014, and thereafter allowed Williams to return to work without incident on March 11, 2014. (See Id. at 5, 7.) According to Verizon, a prima facie FMLA-interference claim requires proof that an employer did not provide FMLA entitlements to its employees, and as a result, Verizon says that the evidence indicating that the company in fact approved Williams's March 7th and 8th leave requests completely undermines Williams's interference theory. (See Id. at 6-7.)

         Shortly after this new evidence came to light, Verizon's counsel contacted Plaintiff's counsel to request that Williams withdraw or amend his complaint. (See Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. (“Def.'s Reply”), ECF No. 19, at 2.) In response to Verizon's request, Dhali purportedly replied, “No, I'm good” (Def.'s Mot. at 13 n.8), and thereafter allegedly called Verizon's sanction motion “nonsense” and warned Verizon that it “severely underestimate[s]” him and that he would “stake [his] reputation on this case.” (Def.'s Reply at 2-3 (internal quotation marks omitted) (second alteration in original).) Dhali also allegedly took other retaliatory actions, including taking additional depositions that, in Verizon's view, have not advanced Plaintiff's case, and inventing entirely new facts and legal theories to support the post-filing developments. (See Id. at 2.)

         C. ...


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