Tuesday, September 27, 2011
The Seventh Circuit ruled last week in Williams v. Adams that a district court's dismissal of a plaintiff's civil rights suit is a disproportionate remedy for the plaintiff's inability (and thus failure) to pay a court-ordered sanction in the very early phases of the case. The court thus reversed the dismissal and allowed the case--now six-and-a-half years old--to finally move forward.
The lower court issued a sanction after the plaintiff's attorney failed to respond to defense counsel's draft pretrial order. Defense counsel couldn't even get a response from plaintiff's attorney a full six months after the court's deadline for filing the pretrial order. The defendant initially moved to dismiss the case and for monetary sanctions, but later withdrew the motion to dismiss. The district court sent the motion to a magistrate, who, after a pair of hearings, declared the plaintiff and his attorney jointly liable to the defendants for $9,055.14, to be paid within 30 days.
The plaintiff tried to negotiate a payment plan--$25 a month--because he couldn't afford the full amount. Defendants rejected it and, five months later, moved to dismiss the case. The district court granted the motion, saying that the failure to pay had been "contumacious," despite the plaintiff's inability to pay the full amount.
The Seventh Circuit reversed, ruling that dismissal was not a proportionate remedy for a plaintiff's failure to pay a sanction, when the plaintiff can't afford it. The court also noted that the defendants had earlier offered to settle for $10,000, money that the plaintiff could have used to pay the sanction, and that the state's attorney disciplinary commission later ordered plaintiff's attorney to pay the sanction himself.