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Robinson v. Derrah

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 22, 2017

LYDIA M. ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM JAMES DERRAH, SR., and LANEKO ENGINEERING COMPANY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         I.

         A.

         This is the second lawsuit brought by Thomas E. Robinson, Jr. against William Derrah and the Laneko Engineering Company. The first time around, Thomas, Jr. unsuccessfully sued the Defendants in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. See Robinson v. Laneko Eng'g Co. et al., No. 14-5036, ECF No. 1, at 10. In that case, he alleged that the Defendants owed him benefits under his father Thomas Sr.'s ERISA-governed pension plan (“the Plan”). (Id. at 11-13.) The Defendants removed the case and the Court eventually granted the Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Thomas, Jr. lacked standing to pursue his father's benefits. Robinson v. Laneko Eng'g Co. et al., No. 14-5036, 2015 WL 4000145, at 4-5 (E.D. Pa. July 1, 2015). Because Thomas, Jr. was not the Plan participant, the Court held that he would only have standing to recover his father's benefits if he were a plan beneficiary. Id. He failed, however, “to show that he [was] ‘a person designated by a participant, or by the terms of an employee benefit plan, who is or may become entitled to a benefit thereunder'” and therefore could not show he was a plan beneficiary under ERISA. Id.

         The Court also noted that Thomas, Jr. failed to produce evidence that could prove what type, if any, retirement distribution his father selected. Robinson, 2015 WL 4000145, at *1. Thomas, Jr. had produced his father's Participant Election Form, which allowed participants of the Plan to select one of four options to receive their retirement benefits. See Id. The form, dated May 5, 1999, indicated that “option four (the annuity) [was] selected.” Id. The form, however, was unsigned. Id. Thomas, Jr. appealed the Court's decision and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. See Robinson v. Laneko Eng'g Co., 634 F. App'x 355 (3d Cir. 2016) (Mem.).

         B.

         Thomas, Jr., who is not a lawyer, now purports to sue for the same benefits on behalf of his mother, Lydia Robinson. Lydia Robinson ostensibly filed the Complaint in this case on November 22, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) On January 5, 2017, Lydia purportedly made two additional filings: a motion requesting appointment of counsel, (ECF No. 2), and a request for leave to allow Thomas, Jr. to make all legal and litigation decisions pertaining to the case, (ECF No. 3). The Court denied Lydia's request to appoint her counsel, see (ECF No. 10), and has not granted Lydia's request to permit Thomas, Jr. to file on her behalf.

         The Defendants moved to dismiss Lydia's Complaint on February 6, 2017. (ECF No. 5.) Lydia did not respond to the motion. In considering the Defendants' motion, the Court reviewed Thomas, Jr.'s prior suit and Lydia's Complaint in the present case. Attached to the Complaint in this case is the same Participant Election Form the Court noted in Thomas, Jr.'s 2014 suit. See (Compl., at App. A). The form bears the identical, handwritten date of May 5, 1999, the same annuity option selection and other markings. See (id.) This time, however, the form also conspicuously bears Lydia Robinson's signature. See (id.)

         On April 7, 2017, the Court issued an order for Lydia and Thomas, Jr. to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed under either Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the Court's inherent powers. (ECF No. 10.) The Order stated that the Court would consider monetary sanctions as well as the sanction of dismissal with prejudice and scheduled the hearing for May 8, 2017. (Id.) Lydia contacted chambers for the first time on the morning of May 8 to request that the hearing be rescheduled because it was difficult for her to get to the courthouse. The Court had already arranged for Thomas, Jr. to appear via videoconference from SCI-Graterford, so it declined to reschedule.[1] Lydia later called chambers again, this time stating that she needed an attorney.

         Lydia did not attend the hearing that afternoon. Thomas, Jr., appearing via videoconference from prison, explained that he wrote the Complaint and signed it on Lydia's behalf after she approved it. (Hr'g Tr., at 5:9-11.) Lydia, however, personally filed the Complaint with the Court. See (id. at 15:3-9.) Thomas, Jr. also explained that he made the subsequent filings in the case, including the request for appointment of counsel.[2] (Id. at 5:21-24.)

         The Court then questioned Thomas, Jr. about the Participant Election Form attached to Lydia's Complaint. (Id. at 8:2-7.) He explained that the Participant Election Form attached to his copy of the Complaint was unsigned. (Id. at 8:8-17.) Defense counsel, also present at the hearing, confirmed that the Participant Election Form attached to his copy of the Complaint was also unsigned. (Id. at 8:19-9:3.) Lydia apparently only signed the copy of the form filed with the Court. Thomas, Jr. was uncertain as to why she may have done so. See (id. at 11:6-9).

         II.

         In light of the facts adduced at the hearing, the Court declines to sanction Lydia for her conduct in this case. Before sanctioning a party, the Court must consider six factors: (1) the extent of the party's personal responsibility; (2) prejudice to the adversary and damage to the integrity of the federal courts; (3) a history of dilatoriness on the part of the party; (4) whether the conduct was willful or in bad faith; (5) effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal; and (6) the merits of the claim or defense. See Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 747 F.2d 863, 868 (3d Cir. 1984); In re Theokary, 468 B.R. 729, 750 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (explaining that where the conduct at issue is fraud upon the court, “‘prejudice' encompasses not only the prejudice to the litigants but also the impact on the judicial system and the threat to the integrity of the courts” (quoting Derzack v. Cty. of Allegheny, 173 F.R.D. 400, 414 (W.D. Pa. 1996))).

         These factors are not a checklist but rather a balancing test. Bad faith, however, is “almost always” necessary (though not sufficient) to sanction a party. Spear v. Comm'r, 41 F.3d 103, 111-12 (3d Cir. 1994). It is therefore ...


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