Monday, August 11, 2014

2d Cir. affirms large sanctions award in civil rights case

The Court of Appeals has sustained a rare sanctions award against a plaintiff for pursuing a frivolous civil rights case against Nassau County.

The case is Carter v. Village of Ocean Beach, decided on July 21. The plaintiffs are police officers who worked for the Village. They filed suit in federal court against a variety of defendants on a variety of claims, including First Amendment retaliation, Equal Protection and state Labor Law and Civil Service Law violations. On the eve of trial, plaintiffs withdrew a variety of claims, leaving only claims under the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause and state law. Before trial started, the district court dismissed the federal claims on summary judgment, and the state law claims went to state court, which dismissed the claims at the pleadings stage.

The County defendants then moved for sanctions, claiming that plaintiffs had no right to sue them. Sanctions are rarely awarded against plaintiffs, but the district court agreed with the County and awarded more than $60,000 in sanctions under Section 1988. Plaintiffs had no business suing the County defendants, who did not employ plaintiffs and did not take any adverse action against them. Plaintiffs tried to connect the County with their misfortune by arguing that a civil service analyst, Sanchez, said and did bad things to them when they complained that the Police Chief was not properly certified under Civil Service Law. As the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Calabresi and Livingston) sees it:

Allegations against all four County Defendants center on Sanchez. But the factual allegations regarding her role are immaterial to Plaintiffs’ legal theories: After Plaintiffs had already been terminated by the Village Defendants, Sanchez allegedly (1) listened to Plaintiffs’ complaints, defended Hesse, and told him about the conversation; and (2) posted on an Internet board, without naming anyone, that the posts complaining about Hesse were “revenge posting” and “crap.” This is not the stuff of litigation. All of Plaintiffs’ claims center around two basic wrongs, improper termination and (to a lesser degree) defamation; Sanchez had no meaningful role in either.

For you civil procedure junkies, there is an interesting holding in this case. Plaintiffs argued that the County was not entitled to sanctions because they voluntarily dismissed frivolous claims and the County therefore was not a prevailing party on those claims and was thus not entitled to sanctions. Their argument relies on a Second Circuit ruling from 1980 that no longer seems to be good law, silently overturned by other federal Circuits and the Supreme Court. In 2000, the Supreme Court said in Buckhannon v. West Virginia that a judgment is necessary to win attorneys' fees. The defendants here got that judgment when plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew their claims with prejudice, which constitutes "an adjudication on the merits." While Buckhannon did not say that in the context of sanctions under Section 1988, the Court of Appeals applies it in this context.

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