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Sweigert v. Podesta

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 18, 2019

GEORGE WEBB SWEIGERT, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN PODESTA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION RE DOCUMENT NO. 55

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Denying Defendant's Motion for Sanctions

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pro 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.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         As the 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[1] 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 government.” Id.

         Podesta Group moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).[2] 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.

         Podesta 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.[3] Id. at 6.

         III. ANALYSIS[4]

         “Rule 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)).

         Before 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)).

         Podesta 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.

         Podesta 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)).

         Here, 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 ...


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