The Eleventh Circuit recently confirmed that a litigant may file a Rule 11 motion even after final judgment has been entered—notwithstanding arguably contrary language in some of the court’s prior decisions—as long as the 21-day safe harbor period required by the rule has run. Huggins v. Lueder, Larkin & Hunter, LLC, 39 F.4th 1342 (11th Cir. July 12, 2022).
The law firm Lueder, Larkin & Hunter represented a homeowners’ association in lawsuits seeking to collect delinquent dues, and later found itself on the receiving end of a complaint filed by homeowners alleging that the firm had violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The firm served the homeowners’ counsel with draft motions for Rule 11 sanctions, and the homeowners withdrew some, but not all, of the challenged claims. Months later, the court granted the firm’s motion for summary judgment.
Five days after final judgment, the firm filed its Rule 11 motions, seeking sanctions against the homeowners’ counsel. The district court denied the motions as untimely, finding that while older Eleventh Circuit precedent had permitted post-judgment Rule 11 motions, more recent precedent changed that rule. The law firm appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Grant and joined by Judge Bill Pryor and Judge Hull, reversed. Beginning with the text of Rule 11, the court noted that the rule requires a 21-day “safe harbor” period between service and filing of a Rule 11 motion, but “by its own terms does not prohibit filing for sanctions after final judgment.” Consistent with that, the court had held in Baker v. Alderman, 158 F.3d 516 (11th Cir. 1998), that a request for sanctions under Rule 11 “may be made by a motion [filed] within a reasonable period of time after the final judgment.”
The district court’s holding to the contrary cited post-Baker decisions from the Eleventh Circuit, notably Gwynn v. Walker (In re Walker), 532 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2008). Walker included a statement that “[w]e agree with the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits that the service and filing of a motion for sanctions ‘must occur prior to final judgment or judicial rejection of the offending’ motion.” But that statement in Walker didn’t alter the rule as expressed in Baker, the court held. First, if Baker and Walker were in conflict, the prior panel opinion would control. And second, the “better reading” of Walker, in the court’s view, was that the reference to final judgment was merely ancillary, a matter of “imprecise language.” Walker was really about the 21-day safe harbor period—“[t]he opinion only mentioned the effect of a district court rejecting a challenged filing to explain how that act could, in some cases, cut short the safe harbor period.” If final judgment cuts short the mandatory safe harbor period, no Rule 11 motion may be filed, but that is because the full safe harbor period was not available to remedy any potentially sanctionable filing, not because final judgment necessarily bars the motion. The cases cited by Walker similarly involved the safe harbor period, and did not impose a flat rule against post-judgment Rule 11 motions. “If a party fulfills the safe harbor requirement by serving a Rule 11 sanctions motion at least 21 days before final judgment,” the court concluded, “then she may file that motion after the judgment is entered.”