Rule 41(d) Dismissal Sanction: Factors — Wasting Time, Money & Effort Pursuing Cooperation = Prejudice from Plaintiff’s Failure to Prosecute — Abuse of Discretion Standard (Sixth Circuit)

Crawford v. Beaumont, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18887 (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2017):

Anitra E. Crawford, a Michigan resident proceeding pro se, appeals a district court judgment dismissing her civil rights case filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This case has been referred to a panel of the court that, upon examination, unanimously agrees that oral argument is not needed. See Fed. R. App. P. 34(a).

On April [*2]  22, 2016, Crawford filed a complaint alleging that the defendants violated her civil rights by removing her two children from her custody based on false information that the defendants had placed in her medical record. She also alleged that the defendants made false allegations against her and defamed her at several hearings, discriminated against her based on her religion, and improperly placed her on the Department of Health and Human Services' Central Registry for Oakland and Wayne Counties "for improper supervision and threatened harm." Crawford sought monetary damages and the immediate return of her children.

In May, June, and July 2016, several of the defendants filed motions to dismiss. The magistrate judge ordered Crawford to respond. Crawford moved several times to extend the time for filing her responses, and the magistrate judge granted the requested extensions. In September 2016, the magistrate judge suspended the response and reply deadlines pertaining to the motions to dismiss. On December 9, 2016, the magistrate judge entered an order stating that she had reviewed Crawford's complaint and determined that the docket had not initially reflected all of the parties named [*3]  in the complaint. She noted that the docket had since been modified to reflect all of the named defendants, and it ordered Crawford to "complete a U.S. Marshal Form 285 for each defendant who still needed to be served." She then ordered Crawford to respond to the motions to dismiss by December 30, 2016.

On December 28, 2016, Crawford filed a motion to excuse her from e-filing documents "[d]ue to financial hardship." On January 11, 2017, the magistrate judge entered an order to show cause on or before January 18, 2017, why the defendants' motions to dismiss should not be granted for Crawford's failure to respond. The magistrate judge noted that Crawford could alternatively file her responses to the motions by January 18, 2017. She warned Crawford that "[f]ailure to timely or adequately respond in writing to this Order to Show Cause or timely file responses to the motions to dismiss will result in a recommendation that the motions be granted or that the entire matter be dismissed under [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 41(b)."

On January 13, 2017, the magistrate judge granted Crawford's motion to be excused from e-filing. The magistrate judge noted that the United States Marshals had served (or were in the process of serving) the defendants, [*4]  and she warned Crawford that the deadline for responding to the motions to dismiss was "not predicated upon the completion of service." She also pointed out that Crawford had to "comply with the discovery procedures outlined in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure" and could not seek discovery by requesting a court subpoena. The magistrate judge gave the parties fourteen days in which to file objections to her order.

On January 17, 2017, Crawford filed an objection to the January 11, 2017, order to show cause. She argued that she had not filed responses to the motions to dismiss because she had filed discovery requests and pleadings requesting additional time in which to serve the defendants. She stated that she could not file her responses until service was completed.

On January 26, 2017, the magistrate judge issued a report recommending that the district court dismiss Crawford's complaint with prejudice under Rule 41(b) for failure to prosecute. Crawford filed timely objections. The district court overruled Crawford's objections, adopted the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, denied Crawford's motion for extraordinary relief, and dismissed Crawford's complaint with prejudice under [*5]  Rule 41(b) for failure to prosecute.

On appeal, Crawford argues that the deadline extensions granted by the magistrate judge were warranted, and she notes that the magistrate judge at one point sua sponte suspended all responses and replies for a three-month period. She also argues that she could not respond to the motions to dismiss because process had not been served on all of the defendants. She contends that the case has been drawn out due to mistakes and violations attributable to the district court.

We review for an abuse of discretion a district court's dismissal of a case under Rule 41(b) for failure to prosecute. Schafer v. City of Defiance Police Dep't, 529 F.3d 731, 736 (6th Cir. 2008). "An abuse of discretion exists when the reviewing court is firmly convinced that a mistake has been made." Id. (quoting Stough v. Mayville Cmty. Sch., 138 F.3d 612, 614 (6th Cir. 1998)). We consider four factors when reviewing a dismissal for failure to prosecute:

(1) whether the party's failure is due to willfulness, bad faith, or fault; (2) whether the adversary was prejudiced by the dismissed party's conduct; (3) whether the dismissed party was warned that failure to cooperate could lead to dismissal; and (4) whether less drastic sanctions were imposed or considered before dismissal was ordered.

Id. at 737 (quoting Knoll v. AT&T, 176 F.3d 359, 363 (6th Cir. 1999)).

The district court did not abuse its discretion [*6]  by dismissing Crawford's complaint for failure to prosecute. First, the district court did not err in concluding that Crawford's failure to respond to the defendants' motions to dismiss was due to her own willfulness, bad faith, or fault. Crawford requested, and the magistrate judge granted, repeated extensions of the deadline for filing the responses. The district court then set a final deadline of December 30, 2016, which it later extended to January 18, 2017, despite Crawford's failure to make any good faith attempt to meet the December 30th deadline. The only reasons cited by Crawford for failing to meet the court's deadlines were problems with effectuating service and obtaining discovery. But one week before the final deadline, the magistrate judge specifically warned Crawford that the deadline for filing her responses was "not predicated upon the completion of service" and that she could not seek discovery by requesting a court subpoena. Furthermore, Crawford's repeated requests for extensions of the time in which to file a response show that she had no problem accessing the court and was aware of her obligation to respond to the defendants' arguments. See Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108, 109-10 (6th Cir. 1991). Accordingly, Crawford's [*7]  failure to comply with the magistrate judge's orders to file a response can be attributed only to her own willfulness, bad faith, or fault.

With respect to the second factor outlined in Schafer, "[t]he key to finding prejudice . . . is whether the defendants 'waste[d] time, money, and effort in pursuit of cooperation which [the plaintiff] was legally obligated to provide.'" Schafer, 529 F.3d at 739 (alterations in original) (quoting Harmon v. CSX Transp., Inc., 110 F.3d 364, 368 (6th Cir. 1997)). Here, the magistrate judge ultimately gave Crawford more than six months in which to respond to the defendants' motions to dismiss. During that time, several defendants filed responses to Crawford's pleadings. The defendants expended time, money, and effort in filing motions to which they never received a response. The district court therefore did not clearly err in concluding that the defendants were prejudiced by Crawford's conduct.

The magistrate judge also warned Crawford repeatedly that failing to file a response by the stated deadline could result in the dismissal of her complaint. The magistrate judge included such a warning in each order granting an extension. And in the order extending the deadline a final time, the magistrate judge clearly stated that failing to adequately respond [*8]  to the show-cause order or file timely responses to the motions to dismiss could result in dismissal under Rule 41(b).

With respect to the fourth Schafer factor, the record reflects that both the magistrate judge and the district court considered less drastic sanctions but ultimately concluded that such sanctions would be futile. This determination was not clearly erroneous. As noted previously, the magistrate judge repeatedly extended the deadline for filing a response and clearly warned Crawford that failure to comply could result in dismissal of her complaint. Despite those warnings, Crawford failed to comply and offered no valid reasons for her lack of compliance, instead accusing the district court of misconduct. In light of Crawford's attempt to shift blame to the district court and her repeated failures to comply, it is unlikely that lesser sanctions would have been effective.

Accordingly, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.

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