Rule 11 Sanctions — Injunction Barring Litigant Who Filed Three Attempts to Litigate Same Claims from Filing More without Notice to, and OK from, District Judge Upheld — Federal Court Can’t Decide Moot Issue — Equals Advisory Opinion (Good Quote)

Langermann v. Dubbin, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 9200 (11th Cir. June 3, 2015):

Robert Langermann brought this action alleging that the Defendants improperly denied him benefits he is due under a class action settlement. The district court dismissed his suit as barred by res judicata and denied his pending summary judgment motion as moot. The district court also imposed a filing injunction against Langermann as a Rule 11 sanction because this is his third attempt to litigate these same claims. He appeals, and we affirm.

I

In the waning months of World War II, United States Army forces in Austria seized a train laden with gold, jewelry, works of art and other valuable personal property-riches that had been confiscated from some 800,000 Jews by Hungary's Nazi-allied government. In the spring of 1945, the Hungarian government secreted the loot westward into Austria, away from the advancing Soviet Army, where it was intercepted. The United States government, which kept and housed the seized property, declared the treasure's rightful owners "unidentifiable." [*2]  Despite pleas from organizations representing Hungarian Jewry, the United States refused to return or repatriate the property, which it deemed ownerless. Some was auctioned off, some was transferred to the Austrian postwar government, some was pilfered from U.S. storage, and some was requisitioned by high-ranking U.S. officers for their own personal use. The train, owing to its origin and its surfeit of gold, became known as the "Hungarian Gold Train."

More than fifty-five years later, a group of Hungarian Jews brought a putative class action against the United States in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that the United States government's conduct related to the Gold Train violated, among other things, the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause.

In 2005, a district court certified a class of nearly 50,000 people with ownership claims to property on the Gold Train and approved a $25.5 million settlement. The settlement did not call for direct distribution of funds to class members. Instead, it created a cy pres distribution system: the funds would "be used for the direct provision of social services and humanitarian relief to eligible Victims [*3]  of Nazi Persecution who are in need." To effect this goal, social service agencies would field requests for settlement funds from needy Holocaust survivors. The agencies would be responsible for verifying the requesters' eligibility and need for funds based on documentation or home visits.

II

That brings us to our plaintiff, Robert Langermann. He is a member of the certified plaintiff class: a Jew who was born in Hungary in 1935, survived the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States in 1958, became a citizen in 2002, and lives in Nevada. This action is Langermann's third attempt to convince a court that the social service agencies responsible for disbursing the funds violated the terms of the settlement.

Two agencies named as Defendants in this action-Jewish Family Service Agency of Las Vegas (JFSA) and The Blue Card, Inc. (TBCI)-were responsible for determining Langermann's eligibility for settlement funds. Langermann received over $7,000 from 2006 through 2009. But after a dispute over whether he was married, he refused to provide documentation to TBCI, to sign a release allowing TBCI to obtain information about him, or to permit [*4]  a home visit to verify his continuing eligibility and need for settlement funds. Because he refused, TBCI denied Langermann's requests for funds. In response, he filed a motion for contempt in the class action. He alleged that TBCI and JFSA should be held in contempt because by demanding he sign a release or permit a home visit, they violated both the terms of the class settlement and his constitutional rights. The district court, which continued to oversee the class action, denied Langermann's motion.

Langermann then filed a new civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, making the same substantive allegations against TBCI, JFSA, and a host of other Defendants, including one of the class's lawyers and the District Judge presiding over the class action. In response, class counsel filed a motion in the class action (in the Southern District of Florida) seeking an injunction to prevent Langermann from collaterally attacking the class settlement in Nevada. The motion was granted, and a Southern District of Florida District Judge enjoined Langermann from prosecuting the ancillary action in Nevada. The District [*5]  Judge observed that each of Langermann's Nevada claims were premised on the class action, its settlement, its allocation plan, and its final order, and that pursuing the Nevada action would lead to relitigation of rulings made in the class action, including the earlier order denying Langermann's motion for contempt. We affirmed the injunction on appeal. Rosner v. United States, 517 F. App'x 762 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam). The District Court for the District of Nevada dismissed Langermann's action with prejudice. Langermann's appeal of that dismissal remains pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

III

This appeal arises out of Langermann's third attempt to show that JFSA and TBCI violated the terms of the settlement. He filed this action in the Southern District of Florida, again naming JFSA and TBCI as well as, this time, three of the class's lawyers (Samuel Dubbin, Jonathan Cuneo and Steve Berman), the executive director of TBCI (Ilya Rubinstein), and TBCI's attorney (David Wrobel). The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that it was barred by res judicata, and denied as moot a pending motion for summary judgment filed by Langermann. The district court also [*6]  found that the complaint was frivolous, so it imposed a Rule 11 sanction enjoining Langermann from filing any further pleadings or motions against the Defendants without leave of Court. Langermann appeals each of those rulings.

IV

***

B. Rule 11 Sanctions

As a Rule 11 sanction, the district court imposed an injunction that barred Langermann from filing further pleadings against the Defendants unless he (1) notified the court of the order imposing the injunction; (2) gave the court an opportunity to pre-screen his proffered filing; and (3) obtained the court's leave to file the pleading based on a determination that the claims are neither frivolous nor barred by res judicata.

Rule 11 sanctions are warranted when a party files a pleading that (1) "has no reasonable factual basis"; (2) "is based on a legal theory that has no reasonable chance of success and cannot [*11]  be advanced as a reasonable argument to change existing law"; or (3) "is filed in bad faith or for an improper purpose." Worldwide Primates, Inc. v. McGreal, 87 F.3d 1252, 1254 (11th Cir. 1996) (quotation omitted); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b), (c). Federal courts have the inherent power and a constitutional obligation to protect their jurisdiction from conduct that interferes with their functions. Procup v. Strickland, 792 F.2d 1069, 1073 (11th Cir. 1986) (en banc). Rule 11 sanctions should not go beyond what is necessary to deter the sanctioned conduct. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(4). "The only restriction this Circuit has placed upon injunctions designed to protect against abusive and vexatious litigation is that a litigant cannot be completely foreclosed from any access to the court." Martin-Trigona v. Shaw, 986 F.2d 1384, 1387 (11th Cir. 1993) (quotation omitted). We review Rule 11 sanctions only for abuse of discretion. McGreal, 87 F.3d at 1254.

The district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the complaint violated Rule 11(b) and imposing sanctions. The specific sanction imposed was neither an abuse of discretion nor inconsistent with our precedent limiting a district court's ability to prevent abusive litigation.

C. Denial of Pending Summary Judgment Motion as Moot

After dismissing Langermann's complaint, the district court denied all pending motions "as moot." An issue is moot "when it no longer [*12]  presents a live controversy with respect to which the court can give meaningful relief." Friends of Everglades v. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., 570 F.3d 1210, 1216 (11th Cir. 2009). Federal courts cannot decide issues that have become moot; doing so is tantamount to issuing an advisory opinion that is beyond our Article III authority. Id. (quotation omitted). To decide moot issues "that do not matter to the disposition of a case is to separate Lady Justice's scales from her sword. That we will not do." Id. (citing George E. Allen, The Law as a Way of Life 27 (1969) ("The scales of justice without the sword is the impotence of law.")). We review questions of mootness de novo. CAMP Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. City of Atlanta, 451 F.3d 1257, 1268 (11th Cir. 2006). Any issue in Langermann's summary judgment motion no longer presented a controversy because the case had been decided against him. The district court did not err in denying the motion as moot.

 

[Vexatious Litigant Injunction]

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