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Huggins v. Coatesville Area School District

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 ...


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