The United States First Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a District Court Judge’s (Stearns, J.) award of a nearly $35,000 sanction against a Massachusetts attorney for filing a frivolous lawsuit. The case serves as a reminder that the Rule 11 prohibition against frivolous lawsuits is not a toothless one.
On May 23, 2006, an employee of a telecommunications carrier crashed a company truck into a highway abutment while driving to a job. He was injured and taken to a nearby emergency room. He eventually admitted to snorting heroin earlier in the morning; a urine sample taken at the hospital tested positive for opiate use.
The employee stayed out of work following the accident. On June 1, 2006, his supervisor drove to his home seeking to have him fill out company paperwork related to the accident. An argument ensued, the police were called, and the supervisor left.
The carrier terminated the employee on August 30, 2006, citing his operation of a company truck while under the influence of drugs. The employee filed a Massachusetts’ worker’s compensation claim seeking compensation for the injuries suffered in the May 23 accident as well as psychological harm based on the conduct of the supervisor both before the accident and at the employee’s home on June 1.
An Administrative Law Judge denied the claim, finding, among other things, that the accident was caused by the employee’s drug use and, as to the supervisor’s conduct, that the conduct was not harassment but, instead, that of a diligent supervisor following up with a consistently poor worker and that the plaintiff “failed to prove injury to himself or the causation of any resulting disability, so no compensation was awarded.” The employee’s administrative appeal was rejected by the review board and later by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Undeterred, the employee filed a second worker’s compensation claim pertaining only to the June 1 incident at his home. The claim was rejected by the ALJ as res judicata. The ALJ’s decision was affirmed by the review board, which in turn was upheld by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Thereafter, the employee filed suit against the carrier and its supervisor in State Superior Court alleging claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and trespass. The case was removed to the federal court. Summary judgment was awarded the carrier and its supervisor for, among other reasons, the existence of wellsettled law that such claims are barred by the exclusivity clause of the Workers Compensation Act.
The District Court held that having had identical claims twice dismissed in the worker’s compensation setting, which dismissals were both affirmed on appeal, should have served as notice of the factual and legal inadequacies of the Complaint and “spoke directly to the inability of the employee to prove that defendants’ conduct proximately caused him any harm.” Moreover, the District Court Judge, in a separate opinion, specifically concluded that “no reasonable attorney – – particularly one with [employee’s counsel’s] experience with Workers Compensation Act claims –– would have failed to recognize the exclusivity provision as an absolute bar.” The District Court Judge who, at an early scheduling conference, had “expressed serious reservations about whether this case should have been brought at all,” referred to the Superior Court suit as seeking “an indigestible third bite at the apple.”
The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s order that the employee’s counsel pay $34,908.12 to the employer and its supervisor for attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the Superior Court action. In ordering the employee’s counsel to show cause why sanctions for frivolous litigation should not be imposed, the District Court noted that “[t]he central purpose of Rule 11 is to deter baseless filings in district court . . . . Rule 11 imposes a duty on attorneys to certify that they have conducted a reasonable inquiry and have determined that any papers filed with the court are well grounded in fact, legally tenable, and ‘not interposed for any improper purpose.’ An attorney who signs the paper without such a substantiated belief ‘shall’ be penalized by ‘an appropriate sanction.’ Such a sanction may . . . include payment of the other parties’ expenses.” 731 F. Supp. 2d at 133 (quoting Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 393 (1990)). The Advisory Committee Note on Rule 11of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that: “The rule continues to require litigants to ‘stop and think’ before initially making legal or factual contentions. It also, however, emphasizes the duty of candor by subjecting litigants to potential sanctions for insisting upon a position after it is no longer tenable and by generally providing protection against sanctions if they withdraw or correct contentions after a potential violation is called to their attention.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 Advisory Committee’s Note.
The case highlights the potentially serious consequences for counsel if they initiate and pursue frivolous claims. As the Court of Appeals noted, “persistence by counsel is often an admirable virtue, but in this instance it was overdone.”