On Being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Willy's Wrongful Removal and Rule 11
4 Preview of Supreme Court Cases 1 (January 1992)
5 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2013
Date Written: 1992
This article previews the issues and arguments in Willy v. The Coastal Corp., on the Supreme Court’s 1991-92 appellate docket. The primary issue the Court will address is whether a federal district court has inherent or other authority to impose Rule 11 sanctions when it is subsequently determined that the defendant improperly removed the case to the federal court and the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case.
The Court's scrutiny of Rule 11 sanctions in civil litigation continues this term when the Supreme Court considers Donald J. Willy's appeal from a Houston district judge's ruling that he had to pay Coastal Corporation's attorneys' fees for various litigation activities that the judge and Coastal Corporation thought obstreperous, but Mr. Willy and his lawyer did not. What makes Willy's Rule 11 appeal so appealing is the Kafkaesque circumstance that gave rise to the judge's ire and the resulting Rule 11 sanction. For Willy did not choose to be in federal court, but was rather removed there unwillingly and, as it would turn out, wrongfully.
In a sense, Willy's predicament illustrates the dilemma of a litigant who just happened to be in the wrong place (federal court) at the wrong time (heightened sensitivity to Rule 11 violations) and therefore suffered the consequence of some perhaps ill-conceived lawyering efforts. Willy's Rule 11 appeal presents the Court with its fourth Rule 11 case in as many years, and will be closely watched by federal civil litigants concerned with the ever-strict interpretations the Court has rendered regarding federal judges' sanctioning power. See Business Guides, Inc. v. Chromatic Enterprises, Inc., 111 S.Ct. 922 (1991); Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 110 S.Ct. 2447 (1990); and Pavelic & LeFlore v. Marvel Entertainment Group, 493 U.S. 120 (1989).
All federal litigators will be closely watching Willy's case to see if the Court continues its uncompromising approach to practical lawyering skills in federal court. In the last four years, at least, the Court has sent the very clear message through its Rule 11 decisions that federal judges need not tolerate sloppy lawyering. To further bolster this point, last term the Court ominously announced that if Rule 11 sanctions were not available to accomplish this end, then federal judges could use their so-called "inherent powers" to bring loose lawyers into line. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 111 S.Ct. 922 (1991).
Willy's case will be the Court's fourth Rule 11 decision since that Rule was amended in 1983 to put teeth into the federal courts' authority to sanction lawyers and their clients for various professionally irresponsible behavior. Rule 11 requires that every pleading, motion, and paper filed in federal court be signed by an attorney, although a client may also sign court papers. More significantly, the Rule states that the attorney's signature constitutes a certification that the lawyer has read the document and that "to the best of the signer's knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law." In addition, Rule 11 requires that federal court papers not be filed "for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation." The Rule permits judges to impose sanctions, including attorney's fees, for violation of the Rule.
Willy's case now gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to say something further about when a federal judge may impose Rule 11 sanctions. In essence, Willy's case is not about the reach of Rule 11 itself, but about the reach of federal judges to use Rule 11. Because Willy's case got to federal court on a defendant's improper removal of a case from state court, Willy's case is really about the scope of federal judges' authority to punish litigant behavior while a case is within the court's admittedly mistaken jurisdiction.
Willy's case represents an interesting tension between abstract jurisprudential theories of the proper scope of federal court jurisdiction and the judicial system's get-tough stance with real-life lawyering behavior, now reflected in Rule 11. Whether any philosophical niceties concerning Article III jurisdiction will prevail over pragmatic Rule 11 policies is the central theme of Willy's case.
Keywords: Rule 11 sanctions, inherent power of the courts, Chambers v. Nasco, federal removal. Willy v. Coastal Corp
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