Rule 11 — Even If Compliance with Safe Harbor Is Factually Impossible, Non-Compliance Dictates Denial of Motion (So Don’t Use Rule 11 in These Circumstances)

Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 5175 (9th Cir. Mar. 18, 2014):

The Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") appeals the district court's order granting the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California's ("Shura Council") motion for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(c). See Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI, 278 F.R.D. 538, 548 (C.D. Cal. 2011). The FBI argues that the sanctions order must be reversed because Shura Council served its motion after  [*3] the district court decided the merits of the underlying dispute. We agree, and consequently reverse the district court's award of sanctions.

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Rule 11 is intended to deter baseless filings in district court and imposes a duty of "reasonable inquiry" so that anything filed with the court is "well grounded in fact, legally tenable, and not interposed for any improper purpose." Id. at 393 (internal quotation marks omitted). A motion for sanctions may not be filed, however, unless there is strict compliance with Rule 11's safe harbor  [*4] provision. See Holgate v. Baldwin, 425 F.3d 671, 678 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that we "enforce [Rule 11's] safe harbor provision strictly"); see also Ridder v. City of Springfield, 109 F.3d 288, 296 (6th Cir. 1997) (noting that "Rule 11 cases emerging in the wake of the 1993 amendments [to Rule 11] have found [compliance with] the 'safe harbor' provision to be an absolute requirement."). That provision provides that any motion for sanctions must be served on the offending party at least 21 days before the motion is filed with the court. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(2). The safe harbor provision further dictates that the motion may not be filed if the offending party timely "withdraw[s] or appropriately correct[s]" the challenged contention during the safe harbor period. Id.

Fee sanctions compensate a party for the costs of enforcing the rule when the party taking the challenged position has refused to withdraw or correct it. Id. Motions for Rule 11 attorney's fees cannot be served after the district court has decided the merits of the underlying dispute giving rise to the questionable filing. This is because once the court has decided the underlying dispute, the motion for fees cannot serve  [*5] Rule 11's purpose of judicial economy. See Advisory Committee's Notes to the 1993 Amendments to Rule 11 (noting that a party may not serve a motion for Rule 11 sanctions after "judicial rejection of the offending contention"); 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1337.2 (3d ed.) (noting that one purpose of Rule 11 is to "encourag[e] the withdrawal of papers that violate the rule without involving the district court, thereby avoiding sanction proceedings whenever possible and streamlining the litigation process").

Shura Council argues that its motion complied with the safe harbor provision of Rule 11. Shura Council notes that it served its motion for sanctions on the FBI 25 days before it filed the motion with the district court. Shura Council further notes that the FBI did not change its original response to the complaint during this 25-day period. What Shura Council fails to observe, however, is that the district court had already resolved the underlying dispute at the time Shura Council filed its motion for sanctions. The FBI informed the court of the existence of additional documents after the court ordered an in camera proceeding. Islamic Shura Council, 278 F.R.D. at 541.  [*6] On April 27, 2011, the district court ruled that the FBI should have told the court about these documents at the pleading stage of the litigation, when the FBI responded to Shura Council's 2007 FOIA complaint with redacted documents the FBI claimed were "outside the scope" of Shura Council's request. Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI, 779 F. Supp. 2d 1114, 1125 (C.D. Cal. 2011); see also Islamic Shura Council II, 635 F.3d at 1166. In the same order, the district court concluded that, in light of the FBI's in camera submissions, Shura Council was "not entitled to any further information regarding the Government's previous searches for documents, and that the Government need not conduct any additional searches for responsive documents." Islamic Shura Council, 278 F.R.D. at 542; see also Islamic Shura Council, 119 F. Supp. 2d at 1126. Shura Council has not appealed that determination.

Shura Council moved for sanctions on September 26, 2011, long after the district court had ruled on the adequacy of the government's eventual compliance with FOIA, and a fortiori after it had ruled the FBI's original response had been inadequate and misleading. See Islamic Shura Council II, 635 F.3d at 1163.  [*7] We recognize that because of the in camera nature of the proceedings, Shura Council could not have moved for sanctions before the inadequacy of the FBI's original response was made known to the court. Nevertheless, the motion for sanctions was made after "judicial rejection of the offending contention." Advisory Committee's Notes to the 1993 Amendments to Rule 11. The motion for sanctions should not have been granted.

The order granting the motion for sanctions is REVERSED and the order awarding fees VACATED.

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