Saturday, April 16, 2022
Fifth & Seventh Circuits Uphold Sanctions for Seasoned Attorneys, Rejecting Their Requests for Relief Based on Their Experience--Part One
As a legal writing professor, I often blog about appellate work for new attorneys or law students. For my next two blogs, however, my comments definitely include newer lawyers and those of us (like me) who have lower bar numbers and years of practice experience. On April 8, 2022, the Fifth Circuit reminded an experienced attorney: “When litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders.” Scott v. MEI, Inc., 21-10680 (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022) (per curiam). Also on April 8, the Seventh Circuit refused to reverse sanctions against a self-claimed “seasoned litigator,” even though the litigator claimed being required to complete basic CLE classes was “demeaning.” Bovinett v. Homeadvisor, Inc., 20-3221 (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022). Both orders take pains to remind all counsel, even those claiming to be very experienced, of the duty to competently follow the law in the trial and appellate courts. This month, I’ll focus on the Fifth Circuit, and next month, I’ll discuss the Seventh Circuit.
In the Fifth Circuit case, Scott v. MEI, Inc., the district court sanctioned Dallas attorney Matthew R. Scott for misleading the court and wasting opposing counsel’s time. Scott (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022). Scott’s defense, in essence, was that he misread an order granting leave to file a second amended complaint. See Debra Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit Tells Lawyer It Is “Often Advisable to Read the Court's Orders,” Upholds $1,250 Sanction, ABA Journal (Apr. 11, 2022). Like many similar orders, the district court’s order allowing amendment of several new claims granted Scott’s client only the right to file; of course, Scott needed to actually present the second amended complaint for filing in order to add the claims. He failed to do so, “assum[ing]” permission to file equaled filing. Scott at 2. Scott then missed the deadline for any additional amended complaints. Id. at 3. Nevertheless, Scott moved late to file a third amended complaint discussing the never-filed second amendment claims and the original claims. Id. When the court questioned Scott about adding new claims after missing several deadlines, Scott erroneously argued the third amended complaint would only remove claims, and would not add new issues. Id. “That kind of parlous behavior would, the [district] court reasoned, constitute misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the bar.” Id. Accordingly, the court ordered Scott to pay his opponent $1,250 as “reimbursement for ‘reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in responding’ to the untimely motion for leave to amend and to the show cause order.” Id. at 4.
Nonetheless, Scott asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for relief from the sanction, stating: “I apologize to the court for my mistakes, but I assure the court that those mistakes are not representative of my abilities as an attorney nor evidence of misconduct.” Id. Scott repeated his explanation that he misread the order granting leave to file the second amended complaint, and also claimed he had experience litigating “around 750 lawsuits” and obtained referrals from other attorneys. Id.; see Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit. Scott also raised four grounds for reversal, including an interesting claim “that it is illegitimate for a court to order counsel to reimburse another party for a response to a court order or a party’s motion.” Id. at 5.
The Fifth Circuit began its opinion: “[w]hen litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders. They are not merely ‘the breath of an unfee’d lawyer,’ and an attorney who treats them as such does so at his own peril.” Id. at 1. The court then reasoned “[t]his entire debacle was the result of Scott’s failure to follow a court order, so the district court was well within its legal authority to take disciplinary action.” Id. at 2. The Fifth Circuit rejected Scott’s arguments on appeal as “paper-thin” and noted the claim of “illegitimacy” was frivolous and based only on Scott’s incorrect “hunch” about what the law might be. Id. at 4, 6. The court concluded: “Scott made a mistake. The district court imposed a reasonable sanction to reimburse [the opponent] for the expense of dealing with that mistake. Law, fact, and logic itself support that course of action.” Id. at 6.
I will definitely be using the “law, fact, and logic itself” line in the future, and I will write about the Seventh Circuit and its approval of a sanction requiring experienced counsel to attend a class like the “Basic Illinois State Bar Association’s Basic Skills for Newly Admitted Attorneys” next time. Until then, happy drafting.