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Monica O'donnell v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

February 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson


I. Introduction

Now pending before the Court is Plaintiff Monica O'Donnell's first motion for sanctions against Defendants and their counsel.*fn1 (Doc. 33.) As grounds for the motion, O'Donnell argues that Defendants failed to participate in good faith in court-ordered mediation and settlement proceedings in May and September 2010, thereby causing Plaintiff and her counsel to incur needless costs and expenses that could have been avoided had Defendants produced a principal with settlement authority at either settlement conference. Because Defendants failed to do this, Plaintiff argues that time spent preparing for two separate settlement conferences, and participating in one, was wasted unnecessarily. As a remedy, Plaintiff asks that the Court require Defendants to pay a sanction of $3,775.00, or that amount of attorney's fees and costs that were incurred in connection with the two unsuccessful settlement conferences.

Upon consideration, although we agree with Plaintiff that Defendants' communication in connection with the prior settlement conferences has fallen short of what the Court expects of parties and counsel, we do not find that the full sanctions sought by the Plaintiff are warranted at this time.*fn2 Instead, in the exercise of our discretion, we will impose a nominal sanction at this time, without prejudice to the Plaintiff seeking full reimbursement of these costs and fees at the close of these proceedings, if any award of such fees is appropriate at that time.

While we only impose a nominal sanction at this time, we deem it appropriate to make clear in this order our finding that Defendants, on multiple occasions over an extended period of time, failed to abide by this Court's orders, and exhibited a troubling and persistent failure to communicate with clarity and candor with opposing counsel and the Court regarding multiple mediation proceedings that have been scheduled. As a result of these failings, Defendants have caused unnecessary delays in the orderly progress of this action, and have caused Plaintiff to incur needless expenses in preparing for mediation proceedings that now appear to have been entirely avoidable. We also find, contrary to Defendants' position, that this Court has the discretion to award sanctions based upon our findings regarding Defendants' conduct. Finally, in order to avoid any further confusion we write to make clear our expectation that Defendants' communicate with greater clarity and candor with both opposing counsel and with this Court to ensure that this action can proceed to resolution without any further undue delay.

II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This is an action brought by Monica O'Donnell, an employee of the State Department of Corrections, against her employer. (Doc. 9.) In her complaint, O'Donnell recites that she was a diabetic employee of the state prison system who worked at the State Correctional Institution, Frackville. (Id.) According to O'Donnell, as an insulin dependent diabetic, she required reasonable accommodation from her employer in the form of various medical supplies which would allow her to monitor her blood sugar, and receive insulin injections as required. (Id.) O'Donnell alleges that prison officials denied her these reasonable accommodation, and then retaliated against her for seeking to invoke her civil rights. (Id.) On the basis of these assertions, O'Donnell brings claims against the state Department of Corrections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation of Act 1973, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, seeking equitable, injunctive and declaratory relief, along with compensatory and punitive damages. (Id.)

On March 12, 2010, this case was assigned to this Court. (Doc. 17.) Upon receiving this case, we scheduled a telephonic case management conference with the parties for March 29, 2010. (Doc. 18.) At this March 29, 2010, the Court noted that this case had been selected for mandatory mediation under the Court's mandatory mediation program. (Docs.19 and 20.) Accordingly, on April 1, 2010, the Court referred this matter to mediation. (Doc. 20.) At no time during this referral process did the Commonwealth place the Court on notice that mediation would be fruitless because the state was categorically refusing to consider any financial compensation for the Plaintiff. Thus, the Court, the mediator, and the Plaintiff undertook this process with the expectation that mediation could be meaningful in this case.

On May 12, 2010, six weeks after this April 1, order was entered directing the parties to engage in mediation efforts, a mediation session was scheduled. The Commonwealth now concedes in its pleadings that this six week delay was the fault of the Defendants, who failed to respond to "repeated attempts" by the mediator to set an earlier date for this mediation. (Doc. 36-1, letter from mediator to counsel.) Despite this delay, virtually all participants to the mediation initially believed that this effort successfully mediated and resolved their dispute. Thus, on May 17, 2010, the court-appointed mediator "certif[ied] that the parties met in mediation which was successful in reaching a settlement of all matters in the case." (Doc. 21.) The Plaintiff also clearly believed that this mediation had resulted in a settlement of this case, a view which O'Donnell expressed to the Court. (Doc. 23.)

In fact, although the mediator and the Plaintiff both plainly understood that the Commonwealth had agreed to settle this case, the Commonwealth apparently was renouncing the terms of the settlement that all of the other participants in this mediation believed had been reached. Simply put, the contrasting views of the participants as to what transpired at this mediation are, and remain, inexplicable. What then transpired, however, went beyond the inexplicable and moved into the realm of the inexcusable.

Although the Commonwealth apparently concluded at some time that it would not settle this case on the terms discussed at the mediation, it failed to effectively communicate that fact to the mediator, or the Court for six weeks. Thus, when the mediator filed his report announcing a settlement on May 17, 2010, (Doc. 17) the Commonwealth took absolutely no steps to clarify this erroneous report. Similarly, when the Court acted upon this erroneous information on May 18, 2010, and entered an order dismissing the case, (Doc. 18) the Commonwealth never took any steps to correct this fundamental misunderstanding and prevent the dismissal of this case which it knew had not been settled. Indeed, the first notice that the Court received regarding the fact that the Commonwealth may not have settled this case which the mediator had reported resolved came on July 1, 2010, and was reported to the Court, not by the Commonwealth, but by the Plaintiff, who advised the Court that the "Defendant now disputes the settlement." (Doc. 23.)

Having received word of this apparent shift in the Commonwealth's position in this elliptical fashion, we scheduled a conference of counsel on July 12, 2010. (Doc. 24.) This conference was scheduled, in part, to allow the Commonwealth to clarify its position on the issue of mediation and settlement. Regrettably, however, the Commonwealth's actions at the conference only further compounded the confusion on this issue. At this conference, the Commonwealth explained that it had not reached an agreement on the terms of a financial settlement during the mediation session, but the Commonwealth's counsel represented to the Court that she had given her "enthusiastic recommendation" that the Commonwealth accept the terms of the financial settlement discussed at the mediation. Informed by the Commonwealth that its own counsel enthusiastically recommended settlement of this case on the terms discussed at the May, 2010 mediation, the Court was led to believe that further mediation efforts could prove fruitful. Accordingly, on July 12, 2010 we entered an order which reflected the representations made by the Commonwealth and stated, inpart, as follows:

AND NOW, this 12th day of July, 2010, the above-captioned matter having come before the Court on a telephone conference to discuss the status of the parties' earlier settlement efforts, and a misunderstanding that had arisen between Plaintiff and Defendants about the result of these prior settlement discussions; and the Court having determined that the parties are likely to benefit from engaging in further settlement negotiations in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable resolution of the claims in this action; and the parties having confirmed that additional settlement negotiations are likely to be helpful; IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT the parties shall continue to engage in settlement negotiations for a period of up to 30 days from the date of this order in an effort to resolve Plaintiff's claims. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the parties shall report back to the Court in writing not later than Wednesday, August 11, 2010 [concerning the status off these settlement discussions.] (Doc. 25.)

At no time during these July, 2010, discussions did the Commonwealth report to the Court that these efforts would be fruitless because the Defendants were categorically opposed to any financial settlement of O'Donnell's claims. Quite the contrary, it was represented that the Commonwealth's counsel would enthusiastically recommend settlement of these financial claims.

Despite the Court's instruction that "that the parties shall report back to the Court in writing not later than Wednesday, August 11, 2010 [concerning the status off these settlement discussions,]" (Doc. 25), the Commonwealth never filed any status report in August describing its views regarding the prospects of settlement in this case. Instead, the sole status report submitted in this matter was tendered by the Plaintiff on August 6, 2010. (Doc.26.)

That status report indicated that a settlement had not been reached, but recommended that further settlement discussion be scheduled. According to the Plaintiff's status report, the impediment to settlement was the absence of proper agency officials with settlement authority at prior conferences. Accordingly, the Plaintiff's status report made the following recommendation:

The plaintiff believes that the assistance of the assigned Magistrate Judge in one final settlement conference would be beneficial to our settlement efforts. However, plaintiff requests that the principal for Defendant DOC with ultimate settlement authority be ordered to attend in person. Plaintiff also requests that Defendants confirm the authority of the DOC designee as the official who in fact does possess final, binding settlement authority. Defendant concurs.

(Doc. 26.)(emphasis added).

These August submissions ordered by the Court provided the Commonwealth with yet another opportunity to provide clarity concerning its settlement posture in this matter. Yet, the Commonwealth forfeited this opportunity by failing to file the status report called for by the Court, and by taking no steps to clarify its position regarding the Plaintiff's status report, which recommended further ...

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