Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Churchillian tenacity can get you sanctioned

The Court of Appeals has upheld a $27,000 sanction against an upstate New York attorney who persisted in bringing meritless lawsuits against the state on a discredited legal theory.

The case is Gollomp v. Spitzer, decided on June 8. Gollomp brought a state court action arising from a property dispute. That case got dismissed. He then complained to then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye about corruption in the state judicial system based on his belief that the state court judge who ruled against him was mentally incapacitated and that someone had forged the judge's signature on a court order against him. When that effort failed, Gollomp brought a federal due process action, advancing 22 causes of action as detailed in nearly 500 paragraphs.

The Northern District of New York sanctioned Gollomp's lawyer, who over the years continued to sue the state in federal court despite clear authority under the Eleventh Amendment that the state cannot be sued for damages in federal court. The Northern District concluded that this attorney had not only ignored clear Eleventh Amendment authority in the past, but that he had misled the court about his disciplinary record.

The Court of Appeals affirms. In doing so, it holds that the Office of Court Administration is an arm of the state and that, therefore, lawsuits against OCA are in effect suits against New York. But, as the Supreme Court has long held that damages actions against the state are impermissible under the Eleventh Amendment, the Second Circuit has never squarely held that OCA is an arm of the state and therefore protected under the Eleventh Amendment from a suit like this.

Eleventh Amendment case law will not get too many people excited, but it's important for the reasons outlined in this case. Under the Eleventh Amendment, you have to bring certain suits against state officials in state court, not federal court, where many lawyers prefer to bring their civil rights cases. There is a multi-part test in determining whether an agency is really an arm of the state, but the central question is whether the state will end up paying out the damages award. If the state pays the damages, then the agency is an arm of the state.

The Second Circuit has held in two summary orders that OCA is an arm of the state. Various district courts in New York have held the same. But does this mean the law is clear and that Gollomp's lawyer threw caution to the wind? Summary orders are technically not binding on the lower courts, and district court rulings are not even binding on other district courts. On the other hand, how can OCA be anything other than an arm of the state? Other cases decided by the Second Circuit on "arm of the state" questions may have been someone more difficult calls, such as Woods v. Rondout Valley Central School District, 466 F.3d 232 (2d Cir. 2006) and Gorton v. Gettel, 554 F.3d 60 (2d Cir. 2009), which held that school districts and BOCES are not arms of the state even though they enforce state educational policy. The Court of Appeals does not tell us on what basis Gollomp's lawyer suggests OCA is not an arm of the state, but the Second Circuit deems this an easy question, probably because OCA has "arm of the state" written all over it.

In reviewing the litigation history of Gollomp's attorney, the Court of Appeals finds that he should known that suing OCA in federal court was a frivolous gesture, as he tried that tactic in the past and failed. In a footnote, Judge Cabranes writes,

The relentlessness of plaintiff’s counsel brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill, “never give in, never give in—never, never, never, never—in nothing,
great or small, large or petty—never give in,” only without Churchill’s final caveat, “except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Never give in! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches 307.

The Court also finds that counsel proceeded in bad faith and that the complaint was incomprehensible in places. While the Court of Appeals notes that sanctioning attorneys is an "unpleasant task" and that the judges on this case were all practicing lawyers before they joined the bench, it has no choice but to find that the district court properly sanctioned this attorney. The Court concludes,

For over a decade, the judges of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York—not to mention our judicial colleagues in the New York Court of Claims, the New York Supreme Court, and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court—have patiently heard successive lawsuits in which plaintiff’s counsel have asserted the same stale claims against the State of New York. A private litigant forced to defend against similar claims year after year would certainly deserve some protection from the courts against future harassment. The State of New York deserves no less consideration.

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