A review of Sixth Circuit appeals mentioning “sanctions” in the last twelve months turned up fewer than a dozen cases, but an overview of their holdings reveals a few insights for practitioners in the Circuit. Given that the standard for review of the imposition of sanctions is generally “abuse of discretion,” it is not too surprising that the Sixth Circuit upheld sanctions in just over half of the cases presented, but the reasons for overturning sanctions prove just as interesting.
Out of nine sanctions cases uncovered, the Sixth Circuit affirmed five, but whether the panel hearing the case affirmed the sanctions summarily or with substantial discourse varied. This usually depended on whether the party whom the court sanctioned clearly abused the system (e.g., suing the Democratic Party for fraudulently misrepresenting Barack Obama’s qualifications to become president held to be clearly baseless and thus “frivolous”), repeatedly evidenced disrespect for the court or other parties, or raised a substantial question of factual support in the record for the sanctions (e.g., bad faith motions and lack of preparedness for mediation).
Two cases involving sanctions were remanded to district court specifically on the sanctions issue—one for lack of a final order and one for the district court’s failure to address a party’s request for them.
At least one case vacating sanctions from a lower court is worth noting. In Llanez-García, 735 F.3d 483 (2013), the district court issued a public reprimand sanctioning the public defender in the case in part for supposedly “ignor[ing] the rules of criminal procedure.” But when the public defender appealed, the Sixth Circuit vacated the sanctions in a sternly worded opinion, first holding that 28 USC § 1927 provided no basis for non-monetary sanctions by a district court, then further holding that the record in that case provided no support for sanctions under the district court’s inherent power. In the other case vacating sanctions, Premium Balloon Accessories v. Creative Balloons Mfg., 573 F. App’x 547 (2014), the Court simply noted the record did not support either the statutory or “inherent power” sanctions imposed by the district court.
This small sample of recent cases limits extrapolations about attorney sanctions in the Sixth Circuit, but indicates at the least that the Circuit takes these matters seriously. Finally, it is important to note that those seeking official discipline of opposing counsel ought to be cautious and must have a firm legal basis and factual support for the sanctions. Careful review of the Circuit’s recent guidance in this area is a must.