United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION RE DOCUMENT NO. 55
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Defendant's Motion for Sanctions
se Plaintiff George Webb Sweigert filed this putative
class action against multiple individuals and entities
purportedly associated with the Democratic National Party in
connection with alleged actions taken during the Democratic
primaries for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The Court
dismissed the claims against all Defendants based on a lack
of subject matter jurisdiction. Presently before the Court is
a motion for sanctions brought by two of the named
Defendants, the Podesta Group and its CEO Kim Fritts
(collectively, “Podesta Group”). According to
Podesta Group, Sweigert should be sanctioned because his
complaint was frivolous and he did not plead his claims with
particularity. As the Court will explain below, however, this
is Sweigert's first suit asserting these claims, and
frivolous claims do not mandate the imposition of sanctions.
The Court therefore denies the motion.
Court explained in detail in its prior Memorandum Opinion
dismissing the complaint, see Mem. Op. Granting
Defs.' Mot. Dismiss (“Mem. Op.”) 2-5, ECF No.
52, Sweigert is a supporter of Bernie Sanders, who claimed
that he contributed thirty dollars to Sanders's
presidential campaign through a fundraising apparatus called
ActBlue, see Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1. Under the
belief that Podesta Group engaged in a hacking and covert
funding conspiracy designed to help Sanders's opponent,
Hillary Clinton, win the Democratic primaries, Sweigert filed
this lawsuit, asserting claims of fraud and breach of
fiduciary duty. See Id. ¶¶ 42- 65.
Specifically, Sweigert alleged that Podesta
Group created Defendant ARMZ Uranium Holding
Company “to broker nuclear fuel and weapons deals to
foreign countries, ” to fund Defendant Hillary for
America, Clinton's campaign organization. Id.
¶ 46. Sweigert also alleged that Podesta Group
“acted as a foreign agent of the Saudi Government and
never disclosed this fact in [Foreign Agent Registration Act]
declarations while having control of the DNC.”
Id. Sweigert claimed that all of these actions
amounted to fraud because donors to the DNC “did not
realize they were in effect, paying for favors for the Saudi
Group moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). See Def.
Podesta Group's Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss 2-14, ECF No. 23.
Podesta Group also filed a Notice of Intent to Seek
Sanctions. See Id. at 15-17. This Court granted
Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction, finding that Sweigert had failed to establish a
plausible connection between his alleged injury and
Defendants' actions, and that his alleged injury could
not be redressed by the relief he was seeking. See
Mem. Op. 13-17.
Group then filed the motion presently before the Court, a
motion for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
11. See Def. Podesta Group's Mot. Sanctions
(“Mot. Sanctions”), ECF No. 55. According to
Podesta Group, because Sweigert's complaint was
“frivolous, ” had “many glaring
deficiencies, ” and failed to plead his claims with
particularity, he “should be held responsible for his
willfulness.” Id. at 4-5. The motion seeks
reimbursement of attorney's fees incurred in filing
Podesta Group's motion to dismiss and motion for
sanctions, as well as other expenses purportedly resulting
from Plaintiff's complaint. Id. at 6.
11 provides certain bases for the imposition of sanctions,
including that a party's legal contentions are frivolous
or unwarranted under existing law, or that the claims have
been presented for an improper purpose such as
harassment.” Smith v. Scalia, 44 F.Supp.3d 28,
45 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(1)). Under Rule
11(b) specifically, a party may be sanctioned for
“submit[ting] frivolous legal arguments” and for
filing motions containing factual contentions that lack
evidentiary support. See Bell v. Vacuforce, LLC, 908
F.3d 1075, 1079-80 (7th Cir. 2018); see also Fed. R.
Civ. P. 11(b)(2)-(3). A court can impose sanctions on a party
if “after notice and a reasonable opportunity to
respond, the court determines that Rule 11(b) has been
violated.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(1). Rule 11 sanctions can
be imposed against pro se litigants, see,
e.g., Smith, 44 F.Supp.3d at 45, but
“such litigants are held to a ‘more lenient
standard than professional counsel, '”
Stankevich v. Kaplan, 156 F.Supp.3d 86, 98 (D.D.C.
2016) (quoting Tracy Bateman Farrell & John R. Kennel,
Federal Procedure, Lawyers Edition § 62:771
(2015)). Ultimately, the Court retains “‘wide
discretion' in determining whether sanctions are
appropriate.” Kurtz v. United States, 779
F.Supp.2d 50, 51 n.2 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Westmoreland
v. CBS, Inc., 770 F.2d 1168, 1174 (D.C. Cir. 1985)).
imposing sanctions, however, the Court must find that both
procedural and substantive requirements have been met.
See Naegele v. Albers, 355 F.Supp.2d 129, 146
(D.D.C. 2005). “The procedural fairness [of a Rule 11
motion] is determined by [a] two-prong test of notice and an
opportunity to respond.” Id. (citing
Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)). The “motion for sanctions must be
made separately from any other motion and must describe the
specific conduct that allegedly violates Rule 11(b).”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(2). “The allegedly offending party
must [also] be served twenty-one days before a motion for
sanctions is filed with the Court, allowing an opportunity
for that party to rectify its behavior” before
sanctions are imposed. Brown v. FBI, 873 F.Supp.2d
388, 408 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(2)).
Group met these procedural requirements here. It first filed
and served Sweigert with a Notice of Intent to Seek Sanctions
on December 19, 2017. See Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss
15-17. It then filed a separate motion for sanctions on
November 1, 2018, see Mot. Sanctions 1, thereby
satisfying the twenty-one day “safe harbor”
period, within which Sweigert could have “withdraw[n]
or correct[ed] the documents at issue.”
Naegele, 355 F.Supp.2d at 146. In its motion,
Podesta Group also specifically identified the conduct that
allegedly violated Rule 11: the frivolousness of
Sweigert's complaint and his failure to plead his claims
with particularity. See generally Mot. Sanctions.
Procedurally, this is all that Rule 11 required.
Group has not, however, shown that sanctions are warranted as
a substantive matter. Substantively, Rule 11 requires that
the Court ask whether Sweigert “conduct[ed] a
reasonable inquiry into the facts and the law before
filing.” Bus. Guides, Inc. v. Chromatic
Commc'ns Enters. Inc., 498 U.S. 533, 551 (1991). The
standard is an objective “one of reasonableness
under the circumstances.” Id.
(emphasis added). Thus, as the Court has already said, a
pro se complaint is held to “less stringent
standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.”
Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting
Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).
Podesta Group argues that Sweigert's complaint was
sanctionable because it was frivolous, as Sweigert's
alleged injury could not plausibly be traced to Podesta
Group's actions or redressed by judicial intervention.
See Mot. Sanctions 3-4. This problem, Podesta Group
contends, was ...