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Huggins v. Coatesville Area School District

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


September 16, 2009

KENNETH HUGGINS, SR., PLAINTIFF
v.
COATESVILLE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pratter, J.

MEMORANDUM

INTRODUCTION

When lawyers place a higher value on being heard than on being understood, when they trample on civility, or when their supposed devotion to their clients leads to stridency*fn1 or worse, they undercut the belief in the law and in the legal profession. At a minimum, uncivil, abrasive, abusive, hostile or obstructive conduct by lawyers impedes the fundamental goal of resolving disputes rationally, peacefully, and efficiently. Because such conduct tends to delay, and can even deny, justice, a presiding judge may be called upon to determine whether one or more adversary has committed sanctionable conduct. Events in this case present the Court with that unwelcome task.

Kenneth Huggins, Sr., sued the Coatesville Area School District and various District officials and employees for their allegedly racially discriminatory and improperly retaliatory conduct toward him while he served as a custodian for the School District.*fn2 The litigation has progressed slowly through preliminary motions and into discovery.

At some point during the discovery phase of the litigation, counsel undeniably and intentionally crossed the line between appropriately aggressive advocacy and unrestrained, pointless offensive name-calling. In response, Defendants filed Motions for a Protective Order and for Sanctions against Mr. Huggins and his attorney because of Plaintiff's counsel's behavior. Following the oral argument on the Motions, during which the Court elicited the lawyers' descriptions and explanations of their own and each other's conduct, the Court ruled on the Motion for a Protective Order. The Court also provided both parties an opportunity to submit supplemental briefing on the sanctions motion.

The Court has again reviewed all of the submissions, as well as the transcript from the oral argument, hoping that with the passage of time the conduct of counsel would appear to be less offensive - - or at least closer to the lowest common acceptable denominator of professional conduct for a lawyer participating in litigation in federal court in the 21st century. However, time has not improved the picture.

Pursuant to the Court's inherent powers to control litigation pending before it, as well as the standards articulated by Rule 30(d)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Rule 83.6.1 of the Local Rules of Civil Procedure for this District, the Court now grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Sanctions.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

School District witnesses Dr. Walker and Mr. Quinones*fn3 arrived at the Coatesville Area School District's Benner Building for their June 5, 2009 depositions. Plaintiff's counsel, Mr. Hannah, had scheduled the depositions. Mr. Quinones was to be deposed at 9:00 a.m. and Dr. Walker at 11:00 a.m. Instead of proceeding according to the schedule, Mr. Hannah elected to depose Dr. Walker first.*fn4 Not long into the deposition,*fn5 the exchanges between the attorneys became, to say the least, heated, personal, rude, and pointless. Having reviewed the transcript of the aborted deposition, and having listened to the lawyers recount the events in the course of the oral argument, the Court concludes that both attorneys contributed to the escalation of tensions and the descent of their behavior at the deposition.*fn6 However, Mr. Hannah racheted the acrimony higher and the standards lower, using a few choice epithets for Mr. Ellison, by angrily referring to defense counsel at least four times as, among other things, a certain unattractive end-piece of anatomy.

According to the Defendants, during the Walker deposition Mr. Hannah also threatened to have an unlicensed paralegal assistant complete the deposition. Mr. Hannah explained in his response to Defendants' sanctions motion that the paralegal was in the process of attempting to regain his license to practice law following a suspension, and Mr. Hannah's side comment, which followed an agitated exchange with Mr. Ellison, asking whether the paralegal was "ready to go back on the saddle" referred to whether the paralegal was ready to be a licensed practicing litigator again, not to whether he was ready to step in and take the Walker deposition that day.

The hostility continued to escalate throughout the deposition. At one point, Mr. Ellison remarked about the skill of Mr. Hannah's mother in imparting proper manners to her son. See June 26, 2009 Hearing Tr. at 11. Then, at another point in the deposition, Mr. Hannah derisively called Mr. Ellison "Boy."*fn7 See id. at 11, 18. Eventually, after incessant insult exchanges and aggressive questioning and objecting as documented in the deposition transcript, defense counsel and the witness walked out of the deposition. Although the lawyers saw fit to call the Court during the deposition for a ruling on the scope of proper questioning, no mention was made at that time of the name-calling and similar behavior. According to the transcript, the offending conduct occurred both before and after the application to the Court. See, e.g., Walker Dep. Tr. at 69, 82, 110, 112.

Thereafter, Mr. Huggins re-noticed the depositions of the two witnesses. In response, Defendants argued that Plaintiff's counsel's conduct at the originally scheduled deposition should bar him from re-noticing the depositions. Defendants also requested sanctions in the form of costs and attorneys' fees. The Court heard oral argument on the motions and, in a June 26, 2009 Order, granted in part and denied in part the Motion for a Protective Order, and invited supplemental briefing with regard to the Motion for Sanctions.*fn8

LEGAL STANDARD

The decision to impose sanctions for the conduct of counsel during discovery is generally entrusted to the Court's sound discretion. Bowers v. NCAA, 475 F.3d 524, 538 (3d Cir. 2007). Various enacted rules specifically address counsel's obligations and the Court's role in enforcing minimum professional standards. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 30(d)(2), for example, "The court may impose an appropriate sanction--including the reasonable expenses and attorney's fees incurred by any party--on a person who impedes, delays, or frustrates the fair examination of the deponent." Rule 30(d) was amended in 1993 to respond to a rise in reports of misconduct in depositions. The Advisory Committee Notes provide the following guidance and explanation for the rule: "In general, counsel should not engage in any conduct during a deposition that would not be allowed in the presence of a judicial officer."*fn9 Similarly, under the Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers in practice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,*fn10 in particular, Rule 3.5(d), a lawyer shall not "engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal." The definition of "tribunal" includes depositions. See Comment [5] to R. Prof. Conduct 3.5.*fn11

DISCUSSION

Defendants assert that in addition to the obvious incivility of using foul language, Plaintiff's counsel's conduct improperly delayed and frustrated the fair examination of Dr. Walker during her deposition. Mr. Hannah's offending outbursts, documented in the transcript of the foreshortened deposition, were undeniably disruptive. It was not merely a single, isolated incident. By the same token, however, neither was Mr. Hannah's angry and inexcusable behavior incessantly pervasive.*fn12 To complete the behavioral picture, Defendants' counsel admits that he engaged in a heated argument with Plaintiff's counsel during the deposition, and that he and the witness were the ones to walk out after a deposition break, thereby discontinuing the deposition. Thus, the arguments and name calling that erupted at the Walker deposition may not have been entirely one-sided and may not have been the exclusive reason for delayed and more costly discovery.

Mr. Hannah claims, even in the stark light of the deposition transcript, that at all times he was polite and respectful of the witness, Dr. Walker. Implicitly admitting that his might be an unconventional view of polite and respectful interaction, Mr. Hannah tries to justify his own behavior by complaining that Defendants' counsel intentionally provoked him with "constant objections" during the deposition. As for his conduct towards the witness, Plaintiff's counsel candidly admitted at oral argument that he intentionally sought to make the witness "uneasy" and "to get an edge on [his] advocacy" by deliberately addressing the witness "Ms." Walker, rather than "Dr." Walker, even though counsel knew full well that the witness had earned a doctorate degree and routinely was known as "Dr. Walker" in formal or business settings. As expressed by Mr. Hannah, this gamesmanship was a litigation "technique" of deliberately disrespecting an opposing litigant-witness of which Mr. Hannah actually seemed proud and with which he was apparently very familiar. At a minimum, this admission cuts directly against Mr. Hannah's assertion that he at all times treated Dr. Walker with due respect. While the vigorous objections of opposing counsel may be frustrating, such conduct cannot and does not justify Mr. Hannah's plunge to name-calling and intentionally disrespecting someone in order "to get an edge." Likewise, provocation will not justify the use of the very same racially charged epithet on which his own client partially bases his claims. Certainly this behavior "impede[d], delay[ed] or frustrate[d] the fair examination of the deponent" by unnecessarily and pointlessly escalating the already-volatile environment created by both parties's counsel.

In addition, counsel's behavior falls far short of that which lawyers are to exhibit in the performance of their professional services. Treating an adversary with advertent discourtesy, let alone with calumny or derision, rends the fabric of the law. Although not rules that demand mandatory compliance, there are any number of published standards that remind lawyers what is expected of them in terms of civility. For example, in October 2000 the Philadelphia Bar Association published in the Philadelphia Bar Reporter its proposal for "Principles of Professionalism" that included the following Guideline:

We will not condone or indulge in offensive conduct directed to the court or its staff, counsel, parties or witnesses. We will abstain from disparaging personal remarks or acrimony and encourage our clients to do so as well.

The same Bar Association adopted various "Working Rules of Professionalism" which included as Rule 1:

Treat with civility opposing counsel, lawyers and their staffs, witnesses and the courts and court officers. Professional courtesy is a virtue, not a shortcoming. It is entirely compatible with vigorous advocacy and zealous representation.

Likewise, the Pennsylvania Bar Association established similar "Working Rules for Professionalism" in 2002, making its "First Rule":

Treat with civility the lawyers, clients, opposing parties, the Court, and all the officials with whom we work. Professional courtesy is compatible with vigorous advocacy and zealous representation.

Numerous other bar associations and professional societies have officially embraced equally pointed tenets.*fn13

In determining the proper sanction for this misconduct, the Court recognizes that requiring Mr. Hannah and/or his client to pay the costs and fees Mr. Ellison and his clients incurred in bringing the motion is not the most appropriate one, especially given that Mr. Ellison was not an innocent bystander in this debacle. Thus, the Court will deny the specific defense request for fees, in favor of a sanction that the Court hopes will have greater long-term substantive effect. The Court shall require Mr. Hannah to attend a CLE course dealing with civility and professionalism. Because this case has not yet concluded and because defense counsel is not without blame for the embarrassing conduct of the professionals here, inasmuch as the working relationship between these opposing counsel will necessarily continue, the Court also will expect Mr. Hannah and Mr. Ellison to join each other for an informal meal in an effort to facilitate the repair of their professional relationship.*fn14 Counsel then will submit a joint status report to inform the Court of their efforts to restore their conduct in this case to a level of professionalism for attorneys practicing before this Court that more closely approximates the conduct espoused by the civility codes and enactments referenced in this memorandum. To quote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's speech at the 1997 ABA Annual Meeting, "[Civility . . .] is not some bumper-sticker slogan, 'Have you hugged your adversary today?' Civility is the mark of an accomplished and superb professional, but it is even more than this. It is an end in itself. Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual."

CONCLUSION

For the reasons discussed above, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Sanctions. An Order consistent with this Memorandum follows.

GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge


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