Be careful what you wish for. That was the message Middle District of Florida Judge Carlos Mendoza delivered in Claudet v. First Federal Credit Control, Inc.,14-CV-2068 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 17, 2015) to the filer of an improper motion for sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court awarded attorney’s fees AGAINST the filer of the improper Rule 11 motion, finding it was filed for an improper purpose (to harass opposing counsel) and certainly not the outcome the filer had in mind. More interestingly, the Court did so without any motion from the non-movant.
The Court asserted that the Rule 11 motion’s conclusory allegations, unsupported by evidence, that the Plaintiff’s claims lacked merit was not enough to apprise a reasonable attorney that the claims, which turned on discrete factual issues, were frivolous. Indeed the Court observed that:
“Perhaps the most startling aspect of Defendant’s motion is the unsupported premise that defense counsel’s proclamation of factual conclusions was the coup de grâce. Under Defendant’s theory, a reasonably competent attorney would have discharged his or her client’s case based solely upon opposing counsel’s statements regarding discrete factual issues — i.e., actual knowledge. Thus, Defendant’s motion will be denied.“
The Court observed that the filer’s short Rule 11 motion was patently deficient:
“Here, Defendant’s eleven-paragraph motion is not to be taken seriously for its substance. Other than citing Rule 11 and section 57.105 of the Florida Statutes, Defendant neither discusses the applicable standard nor, as noted, attempts to apply such standard. Defendant’s reference to the substantive law is even less thoughtful. As to the TCPA, Defendant fails to actually cite the statute, let alone discuss relevant caselaw. As to the FCCPA, Defendant does little more than string-cite three non-binding cases for the actual knowledge requirement. It goes without saying that such deficiencies amount to a violation of Local Rule 3.01(a), which requires “a memorandum of legal authority in support of” a motion.
Furthermore, the motion is wrought with other deficiencies. Particularly, the motion is self-contradictory in that it speaks to the purported frivolity of the entire action; at the same time, the motion only attacks Counts One and Four. True to form, the motion’s request for relief pursues “all costs and fees . . . incurred in the defense of this action,”, thereby failing to distinguish the fees and costs incurred with regard to Counts One and Four. Similarly, defense counsel’s corresponding Declaration shares this error. Lastly, the motion generally discusses the purported frivolity of the FCCPA claims but, without explanation, only challenges one of them — Count Four.”
Based on the patent insufficiency of the motion, the Court deduced that the true intent behind the motion was harassment, observing that:
“In sum, the unexceptional nature of Defendant’s motion bespeaks an ancillary purpose. Indeed, it is evident that a degree of unprofessionalism persisted between plaintiff and defense counsel. (See Resp. at 5; see also Feb. 24, 2015 Letter at 1). Despite achieving a voluntary dismissal with prejudice, defense counsel nevertheless proceeded with the present motion. Importantly, Defendant’s less-than-four-page motion garnered a sixteen-page response from Plaintiff and has likely been the source of much anxiety. Therefore, the Motion for Sanctions was filed for an improper purpose. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1) (describing an “improper purpose” to include harassment).”
The Court also observed that since Rule 11 provides for an award of attorney’s fees to the “prevailing party” the Court had discretion under Rule 11 to award attorney’s fees expended by the target of the motion to defend against the improper Rule 11 allegations:
““Rule 11 authorizes a court to sanction a party who submits a pleading for an improper purpose.” Smith v. Psychiatric Sols., Inc., 750 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2014) [24 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C1307a] (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1)). Upon the filing of a Rule 11 motion, “the court may award to the prevailing party the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees incurred for the motion.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(2) (emphasis added). “[T]he filing of a motion for sanctions is itself subject to the requirements of the rule and can lead to sanctions.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b), (c) advisory committee’s note to 1993 amendment. “Ordinarily, this does not require a cross-motion for sanctions, since a court is authorized to award fees to a party that successfully opposes a Rule 11 sanctions motion.”Smith, 750 F.3d at 1260. “Thus, when a party files a Rule 11 motion for an improper purpose, the court may award fees to the target of the motion.” Id.”
The decision is certainly a cautionary tale that reinforces that the remedies in Rule 11 are not for tactical posturing or abusing opposing counsel and instead should be used sparingly and only under appropriate circumstances where a claim or defense truly meets the high standard for sanction set forth in Rule 11.