Rule 41(b) Dismissal — 4 Factors (6th Circuit) — While Consideration or Prior Imposition of Lesser Sanctions Is a Factor, Circuit “Is Loathe to Require District Court to Incant a Litany of Available Lesser Sanctions” Before Dismissing (Good Quote)

Feldman v. Hamilton Cty. Job & Family Servs., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 8755 (6th Cir. Apr. 5, 2018):

Brett and Nicole Feldman, Ohio residents proceeding pro se, appeal the district court's judgment dismissing their complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b). 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).

In November 2016, the Feldmans filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Hamilton County (Ohio) Department of Job and Family Services ("HCJFS"), as well as several HCJFS employees. The Feldmans alleged that, in 2015, the defendants violated their "parental and constitutional rights" by removing both of their minor children from their home. The Feldmans sought the return of their minor children, as well as compensatory [*2]  damages. The defendants filed answers denying the allegations set forth in the Feldmans' complaint.

In February and March 2017, the defendants filed motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). In June 2017, the magistrate judge issued a show-cause order instructing the Feldmans to respond to the defendants' Rule 12(c) motions, lest their complaint be dismissed under Rule 41(b) for failure to prosecute. The Feldmans did not file a response. Thus, in July 2017, the magistrate judge recommended that the district court dismiss the Feldmans' complaint for want of prosecution and for failing to obey a court order. The Feldmans then filed objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, in which they asked the district court not to dismiss their case. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's report and recommendation and dismissed the Feldmans' complaint for want of prosecution and for failure to obey a court order. The Feldmans timely appealed.

On appeal, the Feldmans argue that the district court erred by dismissing their case.

We review a district court's dismissal order for an abuse of discretion. See Link v. Wabash R.R., 370 U.S. 626, 633, 82 S. Ct. 1386, 8 L. Ed. 2d 734 (1962); Schafer v. City of Defiance Police Dep't, 529 F.3d 731, 736 (6th Cir. 2008). "A district court abuses its discretion when it relies on clearly erroneous [*3]  findings of fact, when it improperly applies the law, or uses an erroneous legal standard." Schafer, 529 F.3d at 736 (quoting Stough v. Mayville Cmty. Sch., 138 F.3d 612, 614 (6th Cir. 1998)).

Rule 41(b) provides for the involuntary dismissal of a complaint where the plaintiff has failed to prosecute his case or to comply with court rules or orders. This rule allows district courts to manage their dockets and avoid unnecessary burdens on both courts and opposing parties. See Knoll v. AT&T, 176 F.3d 359, 363 (6th Cir. 1999). When determining if dismissal for failure to prosecute was an appropriate exercise of discretion, a reviewing court should consider the following four factors: (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. Schafer, 529 F.3d at 737 (quoting Knoll, 176 F.3d at 363). "Although no one factor is dispositive, dismissal is proper if the record demonstrates delay or contumacious conduct." United States v. Reyes, 307 F.3d 451, 458 (6th Cir. 2002).

The four factors on balance support the Rule 41(b) dismissal of the Feldmans' complaint. First, the Feldmans' failure to respond to the defendants' motions for judgment on the pleadings was due [*4]  to their own willfulness, bad faith, or fault. Indeed, the Feldmans' failure in this regard displayed at the very least a "reckless disregard for the effect of [their] conduct on those proceedings." Schafer, 529 F.3d at 737 (quoting Wu v. T.W. Wang, Inc., 420 F.3d 641, 643 (6th Cir. 2005)). The Feldmans again failed to respond when the magistrate judge issued the show cause order and extended the deadline for responding to the defendants' Rule 12(c) motions.

"The 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 defendants expended time, money, and effort in responding to the Feldmans' complaint. Moreover, the Feldmans did not respond to the defendants' Rule 12(c) motions, which had been pending for several months.

With respect to prior notice, the Feldmans were twice warned that failure to respond to the defendants' motions for judgment on the pleadings may result in sanctions, including dismissal of their complaint under Rule 41(b). Specifically, when the defendants filed their Rule 12(c) motions, the Feldmans were served with notices admonishing them that their "failure to file a memorandum in response to the motion within 21 days [*5]  from the date of service . . . may warrant dismissal of this case pursuant to [Rule] 41(b) for failure to prosecute." Additionally, the magistrate judge issued a show cause order to the Feldmans in June 2017, which warned them that their failure to respond to the defendants' motions for judgment on the pleadings "may warrant dismissal of this case under [Rule] 41(b) for failure to prosecute." Despite those explicit warnings, the Feldmans failed to respond to the defendants' Rule 12(c) motions.

The district court had not previously imposed less drastic sanctions on the Feldmans. "This court, however, has 'never held that a district court is without power to dismiss a complaint, as the first and only sanction . . .' and is 'loathe to require the district court to incant a litany of the available lesser sanctions.'" Schafer, 529 F.3d at 738 (quoting Harmon, 110 F.3d at 368).

For the foregoing reasons, the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the Feldmans' complaint for failure to prosecute. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.

 

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