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Doering v. Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders

filed: September 14, 1988.

CHRISTINE DOERING
v.
UNION COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, G. RICHARD MALGRAN, WALTER BORIGHT, EDWARD J. SLOMKOWSKI, CHARLOTTE DE FILIPPO, BRIAN FAHEY, ROBERT J. LAPOLLA, PAUL J. O'KEEFE, SANDRA FLAK, LISA MONTANA, JOSEPH SALEMME, MARILYN BLACKER, JOSEPH TRIARSI, ESQ. AS AGENTS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES OF THE COUNTY OF UNION, NEW JERSEY, AND IN THEIR REPRESENTATIVE CAPACITIES AND INDIVIDUALLY L. T. VINCENTI, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey-Trenton, D.C. Civil Action No. 86-1238.

Higginbotham, Stapleton and Greenberg, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham

Opinion OF THE COURT

A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, JR., Circuit Judge.

Appellant is a lawyer against whom the district court imposed attorney's fees totalllng approximately $25,000 as sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.

We will affirm the district court's conclusion of a Rule 11 violation, based on its subsidiary finding that the complaint prepared by appellant is legally frivolous. We will also affirm the district court's calculation of the lodestar amount. We will, however, vacate that aspect of its order imposing a particular monetary sanction without consideration of numerous possible mitigating factors, and remand the case for further proceedings.

I.

From January 7 through March 8, 1985, Christine Doering ("Doering") worked for Union County, New Jersey in the position of a rape crisis counselor and administrator at the Union County Rape Counseling Center. As a result of several incidents resulting in mutual dissatisfaction on the part of both Doering and her employer, she resigned her position by letter dated February 25. On that same day, her employer wrote Doering a letter that did not terminate her employment but did relieve her of her counseling duties.

Appellant L. T. Vincenti ("Vincenti") thereafter filed on Doering's behalf a civil rights complaint in federal district court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 1983 and 1985 (1982), against the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the county officials who supervised and administered the rape crisis center. The complaint alleged violations of Doering's first and fourteenth amendment rights. After a number of pre-trial conferences (including, apparently, several unsuccessful attempts at settlement) and discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Fed. R. Civ. P. 11. In two detailed and thoughtful opinions, the district court granted defendants' motions. Doering v. Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders et al., No. 86-1238, slip op. (D.N.J. May 4, 1987), reprinted in Appellant's Appendix at 17-34 ("Doering I"); Doering v. Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders et al., No. 86-1238, slip op. at 1-12 (D.N.J. Sept. 29, 1987), reprinted in Appellant's Appendix at 3-14.

In granting the motion for attorney's fees, costs and sanctions, the district court held that "[Doering's] First Amendment claims of deprivation of free speech and association and free exercise of religion are so clearly without merit as to be termed unreasonable." Doering I, reprinted in Appellant's Appendix at 34. It relied on Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 410 (1978) and Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 66 L. Ed. 2d 163, 101 S. Ct. 173 (1980), for the proposition that a prevailing defendant may recover fees in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 if the action is "meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation." Appellant's Appendix at 33 (quoting Hughes, 449 U.S. at 14). It then found not only that defendants were entitled to recover costs and fees from Doering under § 1988, but that Vincenti had violated Rule 11. Appellant's Appendix at 33. The court thereafter exercised its discretion to impose costs on Doering herself under § 1988,*fn1 but ordered Vincenti to pay defendants' attorney's fees as a sanction for violating Rule 11. Id. at 5-6.

Because the district court's decision to require Vincenti to pay defendants' attorney's fees "was based on the filing of a frivolous complaint," Appellant's Appendix at 6, the court felt that "it [wa]s appropriate that the fee award encompass all aspects of the litigation." Id. It therefore calculated a lodestar amount, based on submissions from defendants' counsel, id. at 6-11, which it refused to adjust upwardly. Id. at 11. The court rejected the argument that the award should take into account ability to pay. Id. at 12. It also rejected Vincenti's arguments for a full evidentiary hearing on the Rule 11 issue, for recusal of the district court, and for in camera review of a state ethics complaint filed by Doering against Vincenti. Id. at 12-14.

Vincenti now appeals the imposition of sanctions.*fn2

II.

The traditional American rule is that each party to litigation bears its own costs, including attorney's fees. See Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 44 L. Ed. 2d 141, 95 S. Ct. 1612 (1975). Congress has, however, over the years enacted numerous statutory exceptions to the general rule against ...


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