On April 30, 2013, Robert Fletcher and Bartlow Gallery Ltd. (“Bartlow”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) brought a lawsuit against Peter Doig and some of his associates in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Plaintiffs alleged that Doig and his affiliates falsely denied that Doig, an internationally renowned artist, had created a painting owned by Fletcher, thereby frustrating Fletcher’s ability to sell the work. In August 2016, the court found in favor of the Defendant, finding that Doig had not authored the painting. After the court dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims, Doig moved for sanctions, which the Court recently granted in an opinion and order dated December 30, 2022.

A History of the Painting and the Underlying Dispute

From 1976 through 1978, Fletcher attended Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and worked as a correctional officer at the Thunder Bay Correctional Center. In 1976, an incarcerated prisoner created the painting at issue. Fletcher observed the prisoner develop and complete the painting. Fletcher ultimately purchased the painting from the prisoner after his release.

In 2011, a friend visiting Fletcher’s home noticed that the painting was signed “Pete Doige.” Fletcher's friend advised him that Peter Doig created the painting. Fletcher then endeavored to sell the painting. Thereafter, Fletcher contacted Bartlow to sell the painting on his behalf.

In September 2011, Bartlow contacted Doig “regarding the authentication of one of his early paintings done in Thunder Bay while in school.” One of Mr. Doig’s associates informed Bartlow that “Mr. Doig never lived/attended school in Thunder Bay, Ontario.” In October 2011, Bartlow emailed Gordon VeneKlasen, an employee at the Michael Werner gallery, which represents Doig, stating, among other things, “Robert Fletcher alleges to have purchased this painting from the same Peter Doig.” VeneKlasen responded: “Whatever this person alleges is untrue…the painting is NOT by Peter Doig. Anyone can see that.” Bartlow’s attempts to authenticate the painting continued into 2012 and even included communications directed to Doig’s father.

Two months after Plaintiffs commenced their lawsuit, Doig’s lawyers served Plaintiffs and their attorney Frederick Zieske with a letter under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(c)(2) (which permits sanctions for frivolous pleadings), demanding withdrawal of the complaint. The Rule 11 letter included information reflecting a search conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that did not identify anyone by the name Peter Marryat Doig (Doig’s full name) as having a criminal record. The correspondence also contained Doig’s school records, which suggested that he was not incarcerated in 1975 or 1976, and internet searches for “Peter Doige” showing other persons with that name who lived or had lived in Canada. Plaintiffs did not withdraw their complaint.

In August 2013, Doig and his lawyers located a woman named Marilyn Doige Bovard, the sister of a person named Peter Edward Doige, who signed a declaration stating that she was Doige’s sister. Among other things, Bovard declared that (i) Doige was convicted of a crime in Sudbury, Ontario, (ii) Doige was subsequently incarcerated at the Thunder Bay Correctional Center, and (iii) Doige died in 2012. Still, Plaintiffs did not withdraw their complaint.

On February 17, 2014, Zieske submitted an affidavit claiming that he spoke with Doige’s mother and that she informed him that Doige had perhaps been incarcerated in Florida, but not Canada and that Doige had not spent time in Ontario or Thunder Bay. Plaintiffs, however, never submitted evidence from Doige’s mother—in the form of a deposition, affidavit, or otherwise. Doig’s counsel also informed the court that Bovard informed them that her mother was ill and was confused by Zieske’s call.

Evidence that Doig did not author the painting continued to mount until 2016—the year trial took place. For example, Zieske deposed LeeAnn Sharpe, Doige’s ex-wife, who testified that Doige had gone to school “for art,” and that Doige told her he was incarcerated in Thunder Bay and would often draw while incarcerated.

In August 2016, the court held a bench trial and returned a verdict in favor of Doig—finding that Doig did not paint the painting and that Doige did paint it. Defendants moved for sanctions against Plaintiffs and Zieske, noting the Rule 11 correspondence served on Plaintiffs and Zieske.

Sanctions Against Zieske, Fletcher, and Bartlow

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure asks whether a party or attorney made a reasonable inquiry into the factual basis of their claims and defenses and whether the party or attorney made a reasonable inquiry into the law. Rule 11(b) prohibits the filing of frivolous claims, and when a frivolous claim is made, Rule 11(c)(1) gives the court discretion to impose an appropriate sanction on any attorney, law firm, or party that violated the rule or is responsible for the violation. Rule 11 also emphasizes the duty of continuing candor by subjecting litigants to potential sanctions for insisting upon a position after it becomes untenable.

On December 30, 2022, Judge Feinerman found that Plaintiffs and Zieske should have begun to have substantial doubt about their claims shortly after filing the suit. Judge Feinerman stated that “[b]y May 7, 2014, at the least, it should have become indisputably clear to Plaintiffs and Zieske that their claims stood no chance of success, and in fact, that the claims were factually meritless.” That day, Zieske informed the court that Doige’s mother would not cooperate as a witness. Judge Feinerman reasoned that by that date, Plaintiffs and Zieske should have realized that there were no other individuals related to Doige that could undermine Bovard’s declaration or otherwise overcome Defendants’ evidence that Doig never spent any time in a Canadian prison and never attended Lakehead University. Judge Feinerman further reasoned that “[t]o continue the litigation past [May 7] was objectively unreasonable, as the complaint's central allegations had completely unraveled under the weight of contrary evidence.” Thus, Judge Feinerman found sanctions to be warranted for Plaintiffs and Zieske from May 7, 2014, through the entry of judgment.

Judge Feinerman found Plaintiffs and Zieske jointly and severally liable for $2,525,958.35 in sanctions. The $2,525,958.35 amount represents the reasonable fees charged by Defendants' counsel after May 7, 2014, and Defendants' claimed non-taxable costs and expenses incurred after that date.

Takeaway

This case provides another reminder that a litigant and their attorney must conduct a sufficient factual investigation before commencing a lawsuit and their continuing duty to reassess the validity of their claims, especially in the face of contrary evidence. As reflected above, the failure to do so can expose both lawyers and their clients to hefty sanctions.