Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Magistrate's Imposition of Sanction for Violating Margin and Font Requirements Reversed

            In Kornhauser v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 11-10291 (11th Cir. July 2, 2012), plaintiff challenged a denial of disability benefits.  The case was referred to a magistrate, briefs were filed, and the magistrate recommended that the Commissioner's denial be vacated.  Nonetheless, the magistrate observed that plaintiff's brief had used smaller margins and smaller type in the footnotes than authorized by local rule (which required that margins be 1-1/4 inches wide and footnotes be in no smaller than ten-point type).  Calling these "intentional violations," the magistrate proposed that "when plaintiff's counsel seeks attorney's fees, that the typical request for a cost-of-living increase be denied."

            The district court adopted the magistrate's recommendation and entered final judgment for the plaintiff, who then petitioned for fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act in the amount of $5,935.  The Commissioner then stipulated that plaintiff's attorney was entitled to $5,000 in fees. The fees request was referred to the magistrate, who recommended a reduction in the stipulated figure by $963 as a sanction for the earlier-noted violation of local rules.

            Plaintiff objected to the recommendation, stating that the violation was not "intentional" but an "honest mistake" and that she had not been given the opportunity to correct the brief before the sanction was imposed.  The district court overruled the objection and awarded fees of $4,037, as the magistrate had recommended.

            Finding abuse of discretion, the Eleventh Circuit vacated.  It found no procedural rule that sanctioned the conduct involved and thus that the sanction was based on the court's inherent power under Chambers v. NASCO, which requires a finding of bad faith and compliance with due process.  No show-cause order had issued before the finding of "intentional" violation. 

            The district court was instructed to grant plaintiff EAJA attorney's fees of $5,000.



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