Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Rule 11 Sanctions — Vexatious Litigant Injunction Barring New Suit Against Defendants Until Sanction Paid — Due Process Satisfied by Order to Show Cause and Opportunity to Be Heard — Hearing Not Required — Meaning of Abuse of Discretion (6th Cir.)

Abe v. Mich. St. Univ. Bd. of Trustees, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 128 (6th Cir. Jan. 3, 2018):


Babashola Abe, a Michigan resident proceeding pro se, appeals the district court's judgment dismissing his civil complaint, purportedly filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), and a subsequent order imposing sanctions and denying his post-judgment motions to amend. 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 January 24, 2017, Abe filed a "Motion for Relief From Judgment," in which he sought relief from an October 11, 2000, Michigan state-court judgment in Abe v. Michigan State University, No. 96-82140 (Ingham Cty. Cir. Ct. Oct. 11, 2000) ("the 2000 judgment"). Abe alleged that the 2000 judgment was void because it was procured through fraud and because the state court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, deprived him of due process, retaliated against him, discriminated against him on the basis of his race and national origin, and deprived him of his constitutional right to a jury. He further alleged that Michigan [*2]  State University's Board of Trustees ("MSU") arbitrarily deprived him of his property and liberty interests in attending its medical school. Abe asked the district court to vacate and "set aside" the 2000 judgment.

The district court granted Abe leave to proceed in forma pauperis but dismissed his complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). It found that Abe's claims were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, see D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476, 103 S. Ct. 1303, 75 L. Ed. 2d 206 (1983); Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415-16, 44 S. Ct. 149, 68 L. Ed. 362 (1923), because "he effectively seeks appellate review of the state court litigation in federal court." Noting that Abe had filed three prior cases challenging the 2000 judgment, the district court also concluded that his claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata. In addition to dismissing the complaint, the district court ordered Abe to show why he should not be sanctioned—in the form of a $2,500 penalty and a bar on filing any new action challenging the 2000 judgment—for violating Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b)(1) and (2).

After receiving Abe's responses to its order to show cause, the district court found that Abe violated Rule 11(b)(1) and (2) and concluded that "sanctions [were] warranted . . . to limit the risk of [Abe] proceeding with a fifth effort to undo the state court case he lost many years ago." The court ordered Abe to pay $2,500 [*3]  in sanctions within fourteen days, and it stated that Abe "is not permitted to file any new action touching on or arising in any way from the same subject matter of this (and his multiple prior cases) before paying the sanction."

On appeal, Abe argues that the Michigan state courts deprived him of his right to a jury trial, retaliated against him, failed to hold a required evidentiary hearing, deprived him of his right to appeal, and deprived him of property and liberty interests and "switched judges on him" due to his "race and/or national origin." Abe contends that his claims are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine or by res judicata because he challenges state rules and statutes, rather than the state court's judgment itself, and does not seek to have the state court's judgment vacated, reviewed, or set aside. Finally, Abe argues that the district court erred by imposing sanctions.

We review de novo a district court's dismissal of a suit under § 1915(e)(2). Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470 (6th Cir. 2010). Under § 1915(e)(2)(B), a district court may dismiss at any time a complaint that "is frivolous or malicious" or that "fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii).

Most of the arguments set forth in Abe's appellate brief, and many of the [*4]  allegations in Abe's complaint, challenge actions taken by Michigan state courts in prior lawsuits. But Abe named neither the Michigan courts that issued these opinions nor the judges of those courts as defendants. These arguments therefore failed to state a claim against the named defendant—MSU.

Abe's complaint alleged that MSU committed fraud upon the state court by falsely stating that he had a 42.25% failure rate and that his failure rate was the reason that he was dismissed from MSU's medical school, and by generally manipulating and confusing the state court to win a favorable decision. These arguments are the same arguments that Abe raised in a prior federal lawsuit that he filed in 2015. In Abe's appeal from the district court's judgment dismissing the 2015 lawsuit, we concluded that Abe's claims were barred by res judicata because they were the same claims that he raised in the 2000 case. Abe v. Mich. State Univ. Bd. of Trs., No. 15-2261, at 3-5 (6th Cir. Mar. 14, 2016) (order). We further concluded that the state court's decision in the 2000 case served as a proper basis for applying res judicata despite Abe's claims that MSU had committed a fraud upon the court. Id. For the [*5]  same reasons discussed by this court in Abe's prior appeal, see id. at 3-5, the district court properly concluded that Abe's present lawsuit was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. We need not address the district court's alternative ruling based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Abe's remaining arguments focus on the imposition of sanctions. Specifically, he contends that the district court should have held a show-cause hearing before imposing sanctions and that sanctions were not warranted because he withdrew his fraud-upon-the-court claim and did not intentionally or knowingly violate Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.

Absent cause to do otherwise, we review a district court's order imposing Rule 11 sanctions for an abuse of discretion. Indah v. U.S. SEC, 661 F.3d 914, 926 (6th Cir. 2011). We may find an abuse of discretion when we have "a definite and firm conviction that the trial court committed a clear error of judgment." Hall v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Bos., 595 F.3d 270, 275 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Arban v. W. Publ'g Corp., 345 F.3d 390, 404 (6th Cir. 2003)).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b) states, in relevant part, that, by signing or filing a pleading in the district court, a party

certifies that to the best of the person's knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances:

(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase [*6]  the cost of litigation; [and]

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1), (2). If a district court determines that a party has violated Rule 11(b), it may, "after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, . . . impose an appropriate sanction on any attorney, law firm, or party that violated the rule or is responsible for the violation." Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(1). Rule 11 sanctions may be awarded if a party's conduct is "objectively unreasonable." Montell v. Diversified Clinical Servs., Inc., 757 F.3d 497, 510 (6th Cir. 2014).

The district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing sanctions without holding a hearing. First, the only procedures required before imposing sanctions are "notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond." Id. The district court complied by notifying Abe of its intention to impose sanctions and its reasons for doing so and giving Abe an opportunity to respond in writing. Second, although Abe attempted to abandon his fraud-upon-the-court claims against MSU, he first did this in his second response to the district court's show-cause order—after the district court had dismissed his complaint. If Abe had abandoned those claims [*7]  prior to the district court's dismissal of his complaint, it is unclear what claims against MSU would have remained. Finally, although Abe contends that he did not intentionally or knowingly violate Rule 11, the district court did not clearly err in finding that Abe's professed belief that his claims were meritorious was "objectively unreasonable" in light of the state and federal courts' prior dismissals of the same claims. Although Abe certified that he filed his complaint "in good faith," see Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(2), an "inquiry reasonable under the circumstances," Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b), should have put him on notice that his claims were not "warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(2).

Accordingly, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.


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