Literal Truth No Defense to Rule 11 Sanctions If Misleading — Reliance on Dubious Computerized Data from client’s Third-Party Vendor ≠ Reasonable Inquiry — Reliance on Client: Need Not Assume Duplicity — Uninvolved Senior Partner Not Culpable

From In re Taylor, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 17651 (3d Cir. Aug. 24, 2011):

This case is an unfortunate example of the ways in which overreliance on computerized processes in a high-volume practice, as well as a failure on the part of clients and lawyers alike to take responsibility for accurate knowledge of a case, can lead to attorney misconduct before a court. *** The Taylors filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy in September 2007. In the Taylors' bankruptcy petition, they listed the bank HSBC, which held the mortgage on their house, as a creditor. In turn, HSBC filed a proof of claim in October 2007 with the bankruptcy court.

We are primarily concerned with two pleadings that HSBC's attorneys filed in the bankruptcy court — (1) the request for relief from the automatic stay which would have permitted HSBC to pursue foreclosure proceedings despite the Taylors' bankruptcy filing and (2) the response to the Taylors' objection to HSBC's proof of claim. We are also concerned with the attorneys' conduct in court in connection with those pleadings. ***

HSBC does not deign to communicate directly with the firms it employs in its high-volume foreclosure work; rather, it uses a computerized system called NewTrak (provided by a third party, LPS) to assign individual firms discrete assignments and provide the limited data the system deems relevant to each assignment. The firms are selected and the instructions generated without any direct human involvement. The firms so chosen generally do not have the capacity to check the data (such as the amount of mortgage payment or time in arrears) provided to them by NewTrak and are not expected to communicate with other firms that may have done related work on the matter. Although it is technically possible for a firm hired through NewTrak to contact HSBC to discuss the matter on which it has been retained, it is clear from the record that this was discouraged and that some attorneys, including at least one Udren Firm attorney, did not believe it to be permitted.

Footnote 5. LPS is also not involved in the present appeal, as the bankruptcy court found that it had not engaged in wrongdoing in this case. However, both the accuracy of its data and the ethics of its practices have been repeatedly called into question elsewhere. See, e.g., In re Wilson, 2011 WL 1337240 at *9 (Bankr. E.D.La. Apr. 7, 2011) (imposing sanctions after finding that LPS had issued "sham" affidavits and perpetrated fraud on the court); In re Thorne, 2011 WL 2470114 (Bankr. N.D. Miss. June 16, 2011); In re Doble, 2011 WL 1465559 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. Apr. 14, 2011).

In the Taylors' case, NewTrak provided the Udren Firm with only the loan number, the Taylors' name and address, payment amounts, late fees, and amounts past due. It did not provide any correspondence with the Taylors concerning the flood insurance dispute. [The dispute was the HSBC was insisting that the mortgagor pay an extra amount each month for flood insurance, which they refused to do, so when they sent in their payments HSBC recorded each one as deficient, with the deficit growing monthly.] ***

In January 2008, Doyle filed the motion for relief from the stay. ***

Doyle did nothing to verify the information in the motion for relief from stay besides check it against "screen prints" of the NewTrak information. She did not even access NewTrak herself. In effect, she simply proofread the document. It does not appear that NewTrak provided the Udren Firm with any information concerning the Taylors' equity in their home, so Doyle could not have verified her statement in the motion concerning the lack of equity in any way, even against a "screen print." ***

In this opinion, we focus on several statements by appellees: (1) in the motion for relief from stay, the statements suggesting that the Taylors had failed to make payments on their mortgage since the filing of their bankruptcy petition and the identification of the months in which and the amount by which they were supposedly delinquent; (2) in the motion for relief from stay, the statement that the Taylors had no or inconsequential equity in the property; (3) in the response to the claim objection, the statement that the figures in the proof of claim were accurate; and, (4) at the first hearing, the attempt to have the requests for admission concerning the lack of mortgage payments deemed admitted. ***[A]ll of these statements involved false or misleading representations to the court.***

A. Alleged literal truth

As an initial matter, the appellees' insistence that Doyle's and Fitzgibbon's statements were "literally true" should not exculpate them from Rule 9011 sanctions. First, it should be noted that several of these claims were not, in fact, accurate. There was no literal truth to the statement in the request for relief from stay that the Taylors had no equity in their home. ***

Just as importantly, appellees cite no authority, and we are aware of none, which permits statements under Rule 9011 that are literally true but actually misleading. If the reasonably foreseeable effect of Doyle's or Fitzgibbon's representations to the bankruptcy court was to mislead the court, they cannot be said to have complied with Rule 9011. See Williamson v. Recovery Ltd. P'ship, 542 F.3d 43, 51 (2d Cir. 2008) (a party violates Rule 11 "by making false, misleading, improper, or frivolous representations to the court") (emphasis added). ***

B. Reasonable inquiry

We must, therefore, determine the reasonableness of the appellees' inquiry before they made their false representations. Reasonableness has been defined as "an objective knowledge or belief at the time of the filing of a challenged paper that the claim was well-grounded in law and fact." Ford Motor Co. v. Summit Motor Prods., Inc., 930 F.2d 277, 289 (3d Cir. 1991) (internal quotations omitted). The requirement of reasonable inquiry protects not merely the court and adverse parties, but also the client. The client is not expected to know the technical details of the law and ought to be able to rely on his attorney to elicit from him the information necessary to handle his case in the most effective, yet legally appropriate, manner.

In determining reasonableness, we have sometimes looked at several factors: "the amount of time available to the signer for conducting the factual and legal investigation; the necessity for reliance on a client for the underlying factual information; the plausibility of the legal position advocated; . . . whether the case was referred to the signer by another member of the Bar . . . [; and] the complexity of the legal and factual issues implicated." Mary Ann Pensiero, Inc. v. Lingle, 847 F.2d 90, 95 (3d Cir. 1988). ***

Central to this case, then, is the degree to which an attorney may reasonably rely on representations from her client. An attorney certainly "is not always foreclosed from relying on information from other persons." Garr, 22 F.3d 1278. In making statements to the court, lawyers constantly and appropriately rely on information provided by their clients, especially when the facts are contained in a client's computerized records. It is difficult to imagine how attorneys might function were they required to conduct an independent investigation of every factual representation made by a client before it could be included in a court filing. While Rule 9011 "does not recognize a 'pure heart and empty head' defense," In re Cendant Corp. Derivative Action Litig., 96 F. Supp. 2d 403, 405 (D.N.J. 2000), a lawyer need not routinely assume the duplicity or gross incompetence of her client in order to meet the requirements of Rule 9011. It is therefore usually reasonable for a lawyer to rely on information provided by a client, especially where that information is superficially plausible and the client provides its own records which appear to confirm the information.

However, Doyle's behavior was unreasonable, both as a matter of her general practice and in ways specific to this case. First, reasonable reliance on a client's representations assumes a reasonable attempt at eliciting them by the attorney. That is, an attorney must, in her independent professional judgment, make a reasonable effort to determine what facts are likely to be relevant to a particular court filing and to seek those facts from the client. She cannot simply settle for the information her client determines in advance — by means of an automated system, no less — that she should be provided with. Yet that is precisely what happened here. "[I]t appears," the bankruptcy court observed, "that Doyle, the manager of the Udren Firm bankruptcy department, had no relationship with the client, HSBC." (App. 202.) By working solely with NewTrak, a system which no one at the Udren Firm seems to have understood, much less had any influence over, Doyle permitted HSBC to define--perilously narrowly--the information she had about the Taylors' matter. That HSBC was not providing her with adequate information through NewTrak should have been evident to Doyle from the face of the NewTrak file. She did not have any information concerning the Taylors' equity in the home, though she made a statement specifically denying that they had any.

More generally, a reasonable attorney would not file a motion for relief from stay for cause without inquiring of the client whether it had any information relevant to the alleged cause, that is, the debtor's failure to make payments. Had Doyle made even that most minimal of inquiries, HSBC presumably would have provided her with the information in its files concerning the flood insurance dispute, and Doyle could have included that information in her motion for relief from stay--or, perhaps, advised the client that seeking such a motion would be inappropriate under the circumstances.

With respect to the Taylors' case in particular, Doyle ignored clear warning signs as to the accuracy of the data that she did receive. In responding to the motion for relief from stay, the Taylors submitted documentation indicating that they had already made at least partial payments for some of the months in question. In objecting to the proof of claim, the Taylors pointed out the inaccuracy of the mortgage payment listed and explained the circumstances surrounding the flood insurance dispute. Although Doyle certainly was not obliged to accept the Taylors' claims at face value, they indisputably put her on notice that the matter was not as simple as it might have appeared from the NewTrak file. At that point, any reasonable attorney would have sought clarification and further documentation from her client, in order to correct any prior inadvertent misstatements to the court and to avoid any further errors. Instead, Doyle mechanically affirmed facts (the monthly mortgage payment) that her own prior filing with the court had already contradicted.

Doyle's reliance on HSBC was particularly problematic because she was not, in fact, relying directly on HSBC. Instead, she relied on a computer system run by a third-party vendor. She did not know where the data provided by NewTrak came from. She had no capacity to check the data against the original documents if any of it seemed implausible. And she effectively could not question the data with HSBC. In her relationship with HSBC, Doyle essentially abdicated her professional judgment to a black box. None of the other factors discussed in the Mary Ann Pensiero case which are applicable here affect our analysis of the reasonableness of appellees' actions. This was not a matter of extreme complexity, nor of extraordinary deadline pressure. Although the initial data the Udren Firm received was not, in itself, wildly implausible, it was facially inadequate. In short, then, we find that Doyle's inquiry before making her representations to the bankruptcy court was unreasonable.

In making this finding, we, of course, do not mean to suggest that the use of computerized databases is inherently inappropriate. iHowever, the NewTrak system, as it was being used at the time of this case, permits parties at every level of the filing process to disclaim responsibility for inaccuracies. HSBC has handed off responsibility to a third-party maintainer, LPS, which, judging from the results in this case, has not generated particularly accurate records. LPS apparently regards itself as a mere conduit of information. Appellees, the attorneys and final link in the chain of transmission of this information to the court, claim reliance on NewTrak's records. Who, precisely, can be held accountable if HSBC's records are inadequately maintained, LPS transfers those records inaccurately into NewTrak, or a law firm relies on the NewTrak data without further investigation, thus leading to material misrepresentations to the court? It cannot be that all the parties involved can insulate themselves from responsibility by the use of such a system. In the end, we must hold responsible the attorneys who have certified to the court that the representations they are making are "well-grounded in law and fact."

C. Notice

Doyle, Udren, and the Udren Firm also argue on appeal that they had insufficient notice that they were in danger of sanctions. Rule 9011 directs that a court "[o]n its own initiative . . . may enter an order describing the specific conduct that appears to violate [the rule] and directing an attorney . . . to show cause why it has not violated [the rule]." Fed. R. Bank. P. 9011(c)(1)(B). Due process in the imposition of Rule 9011 sanctions requires "particularized notice." Jones v. Pittsburgh Nat'l Corp., 899 F.2d 1350, 1357 (3d Cir. 1990). The meaning of "particularized notice" has not been rigorously defined in this circuit. In Fellheimer, we noted that this requirement was met where the sanctioned party "was provided with sufficient, advance notice of exactly which conduct was alleged to be sanctionable." Fellheimer, 57 F.3d at 1225. In Simmerman v. Corino, 27 F.3d 58, 64 (3d Cir. 1994), we held that "the party sought to be sanctioned is entitled to particularized notice including, at a minimum, 1) the fact that Rule 11 sanctions are under consideration, 2) the reasons why sanctions are under consideration . . . ."

The bankruptcy court's June order was clearly in substance an order to show cause, even if it was not specifically captioned as such. The more difficult question is whether the court adequately described "the specific conduct that appear[ed] to violate" Rule 9011, so as to give sufficient notice of "exactly which conduct was alleged to be sanctionable." As mentioned above, the court's June order identified "pressing a relief motion on admissions that were known to be untrue, and signing and filing pleadings without knowledge or inquiry regarding the matters pled therein" as the conduct the court wished to investigate. (App. 119) The judge also told Fitzgibbon, "I'm issuing an order to show cause on your firm, too, for filing these things . . . without having any knowledge. And filing answers . . . without any knowledge." Id. The June order also made specific reference to "the motion for relief, the admissions and the reply to the objection."

In these particular circumstances, the notice given to appellees was sufficient to put them on notice as to which aspects of their conduct were considered sanctionable. At that point in the case, the Udren Firm lawyers had only filed three substantive papers with the court — totaling six (substantive) pages — and the court found all of them problematic. Appellees' claim that they believed that the only issue at the time of the hearing was Fitzgibbon's inability to contact HSBC is simply not plausible in light of the language of the June order and the bankruptcy court's statements at the hearing, which were incorporated by reference into the June order. In a case in which more extensive docket activity had taken place, the bankruptcy court's order might not have been sufficient to inform appellees as to which of their filings were sanctionable, but, given the unusual circumstances here, it was. But see Martens v. Thomann, 273 F.3d 159, 178 (2d Cir. 2001) (requiring specific identification of individual challenged statements to uphold imposition of sanctions).

D. The Udren Firm and Udren's individual liability

We also find that it was appropriate to extend sanctions to the Udren Firm itself. Rule 11 explicitly allows the imposition of sanctions against law firms. Fellheimer, 57 F.3d 1215 at 1223 n.5. In this instance, the bankruptcy court found that the misrepresentations in the case arose not simply from the irresponsibility of individual attorneys, but from the system put in place at the Udren Firm, which emphasized high-volume, high-speed processing of foreclosures to such an extent that it led to violations of Rule 9011.

However, we do not find that responsibility for these failures extends specifically to Udren, whose involvement in this matter was limited to his role as sole shareholder of the firm.

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