Judge who sanctioned 'lazy lawyers in glass towers' was too harsh, 5th Circuit rules for third time

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Judge Mark Pittman

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman of the Northern District of Texas. Photo by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, PD US Courts, via Wikimedia Commons.

For at least a third time, a federal appeals court has ruled that a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, was too quick to sanction lawyers or parties.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans said U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman of the Northern District of Texas abused his discretion when he sanctioned two lawyers $250 each for submitting declarations instead of notarized affidavits.

Law.com has the story on the appeals court’s Nov. 6 unpublished per curiam order.

Pittman, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, is a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. He acknowledged that a federal law allows declarations to be used in place of affidavits in a June 9 opinion.

But Pittman said the law’s intended audience was not “lazy lawyers in glass towers who wish to skirt an explicit court order.”

Pittman had sanctioned lawyers for both sides for failing to follow his order to the letter following discovery disputes in a sex harassment case involving Weatherford College. He did not make a finding of bad faith when imposing the sanctions.

Pittman’s order required the lawyers to submit notarized affidavits certifying that they had read, understood and would follow Texas ethics rules, the Texas Lawyer’s Creed and a case involving overly aggressive lawyer conduct.

The lawyers said they submitted declarations, rather than affidavits, because of inclement weather, the 5th Circuit said. Only one of the lawyers appealed the sanctions.

The appeals court noted the law allowing declarations, rather than affidavits.

“Defense counsel’s alleged error was not even an error much less bad faith conduct justifying sanctions since he complied with the court’s order under federal law,” the appeals court said. “On this set of facts, the district court’s imposition of sanctions was a clear abuse of discretion.”

Law.com reports that the 5th Circuit has ruled twice before that Pittman’s sanctions went too far.

Last year, the 5th Circuit said Pittman abused his discretion when he dismissed a lawsuit against Spirit Airlines because of a missed deadline to file a certificate of interested persons. The dismissal was an “excessively harsh sanction,” the appeals court said.

In 2021, the appeals court said Pittman’s dismissal of a suit for the plaintiff’s failure to retain local counsel was “demonstrably unwarranted.”

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