Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Sanctions — Reputational Impact (Good Quotes) — Inherent Power — Need for Restraint Is Greatest in Criminal Cases — Meaning of Candid / Candor

In re Plaza-Martinez, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 5555 (1st Cir. Mar. 26, 2014):

We turn next to the merits. The court below did not describe the basis of its authority for imposing the challenged sanction, but the circumstances make plain that the sanction was imposed under its inherent power. See United States v. Romero-López, 661 F.3d 106, 108 (1st Cir. 2011). In general, a court may levy such a sanction "upon finding that a party has 'acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons.'" F.A.C., Inc. v. Cooperativa de Seguros de Vida de P.R., 563 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 45-46 (1991)). When such a sanction is challenged, we review its imposition for abuse of discretion. See Chambers, 501 U.S. at 55; Romero-López, 661 F.3d at 108.

We recognize that trial judges have appreciable leeway in managing their crowded dockets and in determining the appropriateness of sanctions. Even so, "a judge's power to sanction an attorney is not unbridled." United States v. Figueroa-Arenas, 292 F.3d 276, 279 (1st Cir. 2002). The need for restraint is uppermost when a judge is considering the imposition of sanctions on defense counsel in a criminal case: in such a situation, the judge must "bear in mind such counsel's important constitutional function." United States v. Agosto-Vega, 731 F.3d 62, 64 (1st Cir. 2013). It is, therefore, a bedrock proposition that sanctions, though an available weapon in a trial judge's armamentarium, should not be deployed so as "to chill vigorous but legitimate advocacy" in a criminal case. Figueroa-Arenas, 292 F.3d at 279.

Here, the district court's stated basis for its sanctions order was the appellant's ostensible lack of candor. The record does not support such a finding.   To begin, the term "not candid" implies a misrepresentation (or, at least, a withholding) of pertinent information. See, e.g., Random House Dictionary of the English Language 304 (2d ed. 1987) (defining candid as "frank; outspoken; open and sincere"). But in her motion for a continuance, the  appellant neither misrepresented material facts nor withheld important information; she accurately described an actual conflict and straightforwardly asked the court for relief. While the court surely had discretion to deny the motion, we are unable to discern any appropriate basis for a finding that the appellant had not been candid.

To be sure, there is some intimation that the court may have thought that the appellant had been indulging in gamesmanship because she was seeking to have the court resolve a conflict that she herself had created. However, the record makes clear that the conflict cited by the appellant was not of her own making.

Although the appellant did not enter a formal notice of appearance in the second case until after Santiago-Rivera's sentencing was scheduled, she had been a key participant in that case for several months. Thus, the conflict was actual - not artificially created.

There is one last point. In denying the first motion for reconsideration, the district court suggested that the appellant might have avoided sanctions had she made a fuller disclosure in her original motion to continue. But this puts the shoe on the wrong foot. The district court acted here without giving the appellant any notice that it was considering sanctions or any opportunity to tell her side of the story. The appellant scarcely can be faulted for not anticipating the judge's concerns.

In this day and age, sanctions are a badge of reprobation that can haunt an  [*11] attorney throughout his or her career. They can have ramifications that go far beyond the particular case. See 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur A. Miller et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1336.1 (3d ed. 2013) (suggesting that courts "may wish to consider the extrajudicial impact of sanctions and sanction proceedings on the reputation of attorneys and firms"). It follows inexorably that "when a court is considering invoking its inherent power to sanction, the much better practice is for the court to hear from the offending attorney before imposing any sanctions."  Romero-López, 661 F.3d at 108 (emphasis in original). Had that practice been followed, it seems apparent from the record that no sanctions would have been imposed.

We need go no further. We do not minimize the fact that lawyers are "fully chargeable with knowledge of what the docket disclose[s]." Rosario-Diaz v. Gonzalez, 140 F.3d 312, 314 (1st Cir. 1998). Nor are we unsympathetic to the desire of a busy district judge to move sentencing proceedings along, particularly in light of "the district court's obligation to impose sentence without unnecessary delay." United States v. Rosario-Otero, 731 F.3d 14, 18 (1st Cir. 2013)  [*12] (internal quotation marks omitted). At the same time, however, we are mindful that "[b]ecause inherent powers are shielded from direct democratic controls, they must be exercised with restraint." Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 764 (1980); see In re Atl. Pipe Corp., 304 F.3d 135, 143 (1st Cir. 2002). Courts must take care in balancing these competing concerns; and here, although the district court was plainly well-intentioned, we think that it struck the balance in a way that the record does not support. Accordingly, the sanctions order is vacated and the sanction is expunged. See F.A.C., Inc., 563 F.3d at 8 (vacating sanctions order when stated grounds for sanctions were not supported by record).

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