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Patra v. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 16, 2017



          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is not an ordinary case with ordinary parties. But don't take the Court's word for it-simply ask the Plaintiffs themselves. Harisadhan Patra and Petula Vaz, former audiology professors at Bloomsburg University in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, have fired two sets of attorneys since commencing this “unique” employment discrimination case in late 2014. During a subsequent telephonic status conference, Doctors Patra and Vaz informed the Court that, contrary to its recommendation, they would not seek new counsel, as they are “uniquely positioned” to prosecute their own case.

         Shortly thereafter and in the midst of discovery, the pair filed this motion, which alleges that the Defendants, through their counsel at the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, committed “fraud on the Court.” Since then, Dr. Vaz has contacted my Chambers on approximately five different occasions to inquire as to the motion's status.

         I have thoroughly reviewed Plaintiffs' allegations of impropriety and concluded that the complained-of occurrences are either wholly innocuous or best left for cross-examination. Quite certainly, however, Keli M. Neary, Esquire, and her colleagues at the Attorney General's Office have not attempted to defraud this Court. For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' motion to impose sanctions is denied.

         II. LAW

         “[W]hen presented with a pro se litigant, we ‘have a special obligation to construe his complaint liberally.'”[1] However, “a litigant is not absolved from complying with . . . federal pleading requirements merely because s/he proceeds pro se.”[2] For example, in the parallel context of initial pleadings, courts must search pro se pleadings for “factual allegations sufficient to meet the plausibility requirement.”[3] Federal courts apply this liberal, yet measured approach to pro se motions submitted at the discovery stage as well.[4]

         Construed liberally, Plaintiffs' motion essentially requests that this Court impose sanctions on the Defendants for what they term “fraud upon the Court.”[5]The allegations spring from a purported discovery dispute that has festered between the parties throughout the pendency of this action. Thus, I will evaluate Plaintiffs' accusations through the lens of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 11 and 37, as well as the common law fraud upon the Court doctrine.

         A. Rule 11

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b)(1) states as follows:

By representing to the court a pleading, written motion, or other paper . . . an attorney or unrepresented party certifies that to the best of the person's knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.[6]

         Because Rule 11 “was designed to prevent abuse, ” courts have fashioned an objective test to implement it.[7] The test asks whether “after reasonable inquiry, the pleading, motion or other paper is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”[8]

         Thus, the “standard for testing conduct is reasonableness under the circumstances.”[9] “The rule imposes on counsel a duty to look before leaping and may be seen as a litigation version of the familiar railroad crossing admonition to ‘stop, look, and listen.' ”[10] “It may be rephrased, ‘Stop, Think, Investigate and Research' before filing papers either to initiate a suit or to conduct the litigation.”[11] “These obligations conform to those practices which responsible lawyers have always employed in vigorously representing their clients while recognizing the court's duty to serve the public efficiently.”[12] Importantly, then, “Rule 11 sanctions must be based on [a party's] objective knowledge or belief at the time of the filing of a challenged paper.”[13]

         B. Rule 37

         Rule 37(a), which outlines the requisite procedures that must be followed before seeking a motion to compel, provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

         (a) Motion for an Order Compelling Disclosure or Discovery.

         (1) In General. On notice to other parties and all affected persons, a party may move for an order compelling disclosure or discovery. The motion must include a certification that the movant has in good faith conferred or attempted to confer with the person or party failing to make disclosure or discovery in an effort to obtain it without court action.

         Its counterpart, Rule 37(b), provides for penalties in the event of noncompliance with an order compelling discovery. In pertinent part, it reads:

(b) Failure to Comply with a Court Order.
. . .
(2) Sanctions Sought in the District Where the Action Is Pending.
(A) For Not Obeying a Discovery Order. If a party or a party's officer, director, or managing agent-or a witness designated under Rule 30(b)(6) or 31(a)(4)-fails to obey an order to provide or permit discovery, including an order under Rule 26(f), 35, or 37(a), the court where the action is pending may issue further just orders. They may include the following:
(i) directing that the matters embraced in the order or other designated facts be taken as established for purposes of the action, as the prevailing party claims;
(ii) prohibiting the disobedient party from supporting or opposing designated claims or defenses, or from introducing designated matters in evidence;
(iii) striking pleadings in whole or in part;
(iv) staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed;
(v) dismissing the action or proceeding in whole or in part;
(vi) rendering a default judgment against the disobedient party; or
(vii) treating as contempt of court the failure to obey any order except an order to submit to a physical or mental examination.

         “If the court enters an order compelling discovery under Rule 37(a) and the order is disobeyed, the second step of the two-step process may be invoked under Rule 37(b).”[14] “Dismissal is a harsh sanction which should be resorted to only in extreme cases.”[15] “The power of the court to prevent undue delays and to control its calendars must be weighed against the policy of law which favors disposition of litigation on its merits.”[16] “Thus, we must give full regard for the severity of the sanction, granting dismissal sparingly and only when less drastic alternatives have been explored.”[17]

         C. Fraud upon the Court

         For litigants to adequately demonstrate fraud upon the Court, they must prove: “(1) an intentional fraud; (2) by an officer of the Court; (3) which is directed at the Court itself; and (4) in fact deceives the Court.”[18] Fraud upon the Court “may be justified only by ‘the most egregious misconduct directed to the court itself, ' [and] ‘must be supported by clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence.'”[19] Moreover, fraud upon the Court typically challenges “the very principle upon which our judicial system is based: the finality of judgment.”[20] In fact, “[o]nly a small number of those acts that can be considered fraud amount to ‘fraud upon the court.'”[21] Thus, the Honorable Ruggero J. Aldisert, writing for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, has poetically explained that a party alleging fraud upon the Court not only has “a high hurdle to climb, ” but also “a steep cliff-face to scale.”[22]

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs' motion for sanctions failed to conform to the requirements imposed by the Local Rules.[23] Still, the Court liberally discerns ten distinct claims levied against the Defendants here. Each is meritless.

         A. Failure to Designate Drs. Angelo and Gonzalez as “Supervisors”

         Plaintiffs allege that Dr. Wislock falsely documented Defendants Dr. Richard Angelo and Dr. Jorge E. Gonzalez as not having served as “supervisors” in the Audiology and Speech Pathology Department for certain time periods relevant to this case.[24] Specifically, Plaintiffs contend that Dr. Wislock falsified documentation with the intent to misrepresent the data, thus constituting fraud upon the Court.[25]

         From the outset, the Court considers this a somewhat peripheral argument, given that supervisory capacity under federal law is determined not so much by title but by actual authority. “[A]n employee is a ‘supervisor' for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”[26]Nevertheless, Plaintiffs' argument is without merit for several reasons.

         First, Plaintiffs merely allege that the document that Dr. Wislock provided was “not factually correct.”[27] By itself and with no comparators, that is a hollow allegation. Plaintiffs state in their motion that “currently no depositions could be held since Plaintiffs cannot rely on the validity, accuracy, or integrity of Defendants' production.”[28] Thus, because Plaintiffs distrust the Defendants and their productions, they have, of their own accord, essentially deprived themselves of the means necessary to prove their claims.

         That procedural reality is fatal to this and several other of Plaintiffs' allegations. The claimed inconsistencies (to the extent that they even are inconsistencies) are just as compatible with mistake or inadvertence as they are with willful falsification. The applicable mens rea-intent-requires that the movants “demonstrate[ ], clearly and convincingly, that a party has sentiently set in motion some unconscionable scheme calculated to interfere with the judicial system's ability impartially to adjudicate a matter.”[29] Without more, Plaintiffs' empty assertions fall well short of the high standard for fraud upon the Court.

         Moreover, Plaintiffs' decision to forego additional depositions pending the outcome of this dispute, despite the Court's admonition otherwise, is necessarily fatal to any claim under Rule 37. Because no motion to compel was filed, no Court Order upon which a Rule 37(b) motion for sanctions may be grounded ever existed.

         In addition, the lack of discovery renders this motion largely premature, as little evidence exists about which any reasonable comparisons may be made. The Court understands that the instant dispute would have hampered discovery in some ways, but conducting depositions in as feasible a manner as possible would have permitted the Plaintiffs to confront these witnesses on the alleged inconsistencies and to construct a complete factual record.

         Even reaching the substantive law, Plaintiffs' claims fail to establish fraud upon the Court. Fraud upon the Court typically relates to the reopening of a final judgment. That is why courts apply such a stringent standard. The matter here between Plaintiffs and Defendants has not been finally adjudicated. In fact, the Court has yet to make any finding on the merits. Accordingly, fraud upon the Court is inapplicable. Nonetheless, the Court will address the remaining elements required for an adequate fraud upon the Court claim.

         Plaintiffs fail the first element because they have not proven with clear and convincing evidence that Defendants' counsel acted intentionally to commit fraud. Plaintiffs offer only vacant claims that Dr. Wislock intentionally falsified documentation without offering any contrasting evidence. Thus, because Plaintiffs have not overcome the “high hurdle, ” their claim fails on this independent ground.

         By its second and third elements, fraud upon the Court requires an officer of the Court to act with intentional fraud and direct such fraud at the Court itself. Plaintiffs' argument again fails because Dr. Wislock, not Defendants' counsel, purportedly acted with intentional fraud and the fraud was not directed at the Court, but rather at Plaintiffs. In addition, no averments are offered as to whether counsel for the Defendant knew of or countenanced the alleged falsifications after making a reasonable inquiry into any of the documents' truth or falsity. Likewise, Plaintiffs' failure to prove extreme or abusive conduct that was unreasonable under the circumstances at the time of the filing is also fatal to any Rule 11 claim that might liberally be drawn from Plaintiffs' papers.

         Lastly, fraud upon the Court requires intentional fraud to deceive the Court. Because elements one through three were not established, element four cannot be met. Plaintiffs' argument regarding incomplete designation of supervisors is therefore without merit. I note that several of these observations could be made about each of Plaintiffs' allegations, but I emphasize them here.

         B. Misdirected Phone ...

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