On May 31, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $150,000 sanctions award against three consumer attorneys and their law firms for bad faith conduct and misrepresentations.

The opinion reads like a detective story and lays out, in the Court’s own words, “a mosaic of half-truths, inconsistencies, mischaracterizations, exaggerations, omissions, evasions, and failures to correct known misimpressions created by [consumer attorneys’] own conduct that, in their totality, evince lack of candor to the court and disrespect for the judicial process.”

The litigation arose from a payday loan that plaintiff James Dillon obtained from online lender Western Sky. Later, Dillon engaged attorneys Stephen Six and Austin Moore of Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP and Darren Kaplan of Kaplan Law Firm, PC who filed a putative class action against several non-lender banks that processed loan-related transactions through the Automatic Clearing House network. Defendant Generations Community Federal Credit Union promptly moved to dismiss Dillon’s lawsuit on the basis of the loan agreement’s arbitration clause. In response, Dillon challenged authenticity of the loan agreement and a two-year-long dispute ensued during which the district court refused to send the case to arbitration based on Dillon’s authenticity challenge; Generations appealed the district court’s decision; and the Fourth Circuit vacated it and remanded the case for further proceedings on the arbitration issue. Significantly, when questioned by both the district court and the Fourth Circuit, Six maintained authenticity challenge and represented that he had drafted the complaint without the loan agreement and that Dillon’s claims do not rely on the loan agreement.

Six’s representations regarding the contents of the complaint were problematic given the complaint specifically referenced the loan agreement and its terms. Evidence uncovered during arbitration-related discovery showed that Dillon possessed the loan agreement all along and, crucially, that he supplied his counsel with a copy of the agreement a week before the complaint was filed. The latter piece of evidence was discovered only as a result of forensic examination of Dillon’s computer. Once this evidence came to light, Dillon responded to Generations’ requests for admissions that the loan agreement was authentic.

Generations moved for sanctions against Dillon’s attorneys. Instead of admitting their wrongdoing, Kaplan argued that there was never any challenge to authenticity, and Six argued that he still doubted authenticity even though he signed Dillon’s admissions that the loan agreement was authentic. Invoking its inherent authority to punish bad faith behavior, the district court sanctioned Six, Kaplan, and their law firms jointly, ordering them to pay the defendants $150,000 in attorneys’ fees. Moore was held liable jointly for only $100,000 of the total amount due to his lesser role in the bad-faith conduct. The lawyers appealed.

The Fourth Circuit summarily rejected their arguments that neither the rules of ethics nor the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure required them to disclose the copy of the loan agreement before discovery commenced. “These arguments miss the point. Counsel are not being sanctioned for their failure to disclose the Dillon copy of the Western Sky loan agreement. Rather, counsel are being sanctioned for raising objections in bad faith—simultaneously questioning (and encouraging the district court to question) the authenticity of a loan agreement without disclosing that the Plaintiff provided them a copy of that loan agreement before the complaint was filed.”

Discovery in consumer litigation is often asymmetrical and focuses on defendants’ obligations. This opinion is a good reminder that the rules apply to plaintiffs too and that the courts will not condone a “crusade to suppress the truth to gain a tactical advantage.”