Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Rule 41(b) Dismissal — 4 Factors (6th Circuit) — — Absent Bad Faith, Failure to Comply with Order May Be Insufficient Unless Warning Puts Party on Notice That Further Noncompliance Will Result in Dismissal

Harris v. Davidson Cty. Sheriff, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 10587 (6th Cir. Apr. 25, 2018):

Vaughn Harris, a Tennessee pretrial detainee proceeding pro se, appeals the district court's judgment dismissing his civil rights action 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 his civil rights complaint filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Harris challenged the conditions of his confinement at the Davidson County Criminal Justice Center, alleging in part the [*2]  denial of adequate dental care. Harris named Correct Care Solutions, the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, and several individuals as defendants. Upon initial screening, the district court dismissed all of Harris's claims except for his claims against Correct Care Solutions. Harris then filed three motions to amend his complaint. A magistrate judge denied Harris's motions and allowed him fourteen days "to file a single amended complaint, which is complete in all details." Harris filed a motion to amend his complaint along with a notice of appeal to challenge the district court's prior dismissal order. This court dismissed Harris's interlocutory appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction.

After this court dismissed his appeal, Harris asked the district court to consider his last filed amended complaint. The magistrate judge granted Harris's motion and reviewed his last filed amended complaint, recommending that several of his claims be dismissed. Harris filed two more motions to amend his complaint, which the magistrate judge denied. The defendants filed answers and motions to dismiss. The magistrate judge recommended that the motions to dismiss be granted in part and denied in part. [*3]  Harris then filed yet another motion to amend his complaint. Describing Harris's motion as "almost incomprehensible," the magistrate judge gave him additional time to file an amended complaint and advised him: "What is needed is a clear statement of what each Defendant is alleged to have done." Harris filed a motion to amend his complaint and proposed amendments, which the magistrate judge denied until the district court had ruled on the pending reports and recommendations. The district court subsequently accepted and approved the magistrate judge's reports and recommendations and gave Harris twenty-one days to file an amended complaint with instructions to narrow down the issues and defendants.

Harris filed a proposed amended complaint along with approximately 350 pages of attachments. The magistrate judge issued an order stating:

Judge Sharp previously cautioned the Plaintiff in his order of February 3, 2017 (Docket Entry 190) to appropriately narrow down the issues and defendants. Unfortunately, the Plaintiff in his latest attempt to amend his complaint (Docket Entry 205) totally ignored that advice and filed a yet longer proposed complaint. His complaint will have to be reviewed. [*4] 

If the Plaintiff would simply follow Rule 8, which was mentioned at the beginning of this order, he might have some chance of advancing his case. As it is, he has simply slowed the entire process down. He is now attempting to name numerous Defendants, some of whom have been dismissed, in addition to the four Defendants that have been served and are actually Defendants in this case.

The Plaintiff may have valid claims against the individuals actually responsible for his dental treatments. Attempting to name everyone he had contact with simply complicates the case and insures that it will take far longer to resolve.

In a last ditch effort to bring some chaos to the Plaintiff's mayhem [sic], a case management conference is set in this matter for Monday, April 17, 2017, at 1:30 p.m., Courtroom 783. At the conference the Plaintiff should bring an amended complaint, which complies with Rule 8 and sets forth specifically what each defendant he names in the complaint did that he contends violates his constitutional rights. This should be completed in less than 30 pages. All Defendants should be named and what he/she is alleged to have done should be listed in consecutive numbered paragraphs right below the [*5]  name of a proposed defendant. The Plaintiff may not name defendants who have been dismissed by previous court orders.

Before the scheduled case management conference, the district court dismissed Harris's case pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b). The district court stated:

In the present case, plaintiff has repeatedly filed the same complaint that fails to comport with the requirement of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) that a pleading contain a "short and plain statement of the claim." Plaintiff has disregarded three of the Court's orders requiring him to amend his complaint appropriately. Instead of complying, plaintiff his repeatedly refiled the original rambling, disorganized, scattershot complaint (or some closely similar version thereof) with an ever growing number of exhibits and with no regard for the Court's several orders of partial dismissal. Under these circumstances, involuntarily [sic] dismissal for plaintiff's failure "to comply with these rules or a court order," Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b), is proper.

Harris subsequently filed motions to amend his complaint or for relief from judgment, which the district court denied.

This timely appeal followed. On appeal, Harris argues that his civil rights action complied with Rule 8(a), that the district court erred in dismissing [*6]  his case with prejudice, and that the district court and the magistrate judge issued biased rulings.

"Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure confers on district courts the authority to dismiss an action for failure of a plaintiff to prosecute the claim or to comply with the Rules or any order of the court." Schafer v. City of Defiance Police Dep't, 529 F.3d 731, 736 (6th Cir. 2008) (citing Knoll v. AT&T, 176 F.3d 359, 362-63 (6th Cir. 1999)). We review a Rule 41(b) dismissal for abuse of discretion. Knoll, 176 F.3d at 363. In reviewing the district court's dismissal under Rule 41(b), we consider 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.


Albeit rambling, Harris's amended complaint that was served on the defendants adequately stated some claims for relief. The magistrate judge gave Harris one last opportunity to file a more concise amended complaint at the case management conference, but the district court dismissed the case before the conference. Absent bad faith or willful disobedience, this court has "frequently reversed district courts for dismissing cases because litigants failed [*7]  . . . to comply with pretrial orders when the district courts did not put the derelict parties on notice that further noncompliance would result in dismissal." Harris v. Callwood, 844 F.2d 1254, 1256 (6th Cir. 1988). Although the defendant failed to shorten his complaint, his failures did not rise to the level of bad faith or willful disobedience. And importantly, the district court did not put Harris on notice that failure to file a satisfactory amended complaint would result in dismissal. The district court instead sent Harris the opposite message by repeatedly inviting him to file amendments to correct his complaint's deficiencies. Under these circumstances, the district court abused its discretion in dismissing Harris's case without warning before the scheduled conference.

Harris contends that the district court and the magistrate judge issued biased rulings against him. But Harris fails to point to any evidence on the part of the district court or the magistrate judge other than their unfavorable rulings, which almost never constitute judicial bias. See Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 555, 114 S. Ct. 1147, 127 L. Ed. 2d 474 (1994); Mason v. Burton, No. 16-2080, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 26088, 2017 WL 6539216, at *6 (6th Cir. Dec. 21, 2017). No bias has been shown.

Harris moves this court to allow the amendment of his complaint. Any amendments as well as any appropriate filing restrictions should be addressed by the [*8]  district court.

For these reasons, we VACATE the district court's judgment and REMAND for further proceedings. We DENY Harris's motion to amend his complaint but GRANT his motion to add citations of supplemental authorities to his original brief.


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