Trials & Litigation

Sanctions motion backfires; judge derides Littler Mendelson's 'top secret' fee requests

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Littler Mendelson’s request for attorney fees and sanctions against a losing plaintiff in a bias suit backfired when a federal judge said the motions were intended to harass.

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell of Philadelphia said Littler Mendelson had to pay the plaintiff’s costs in defending the motions. The law firm, which represented the defendant, Fox Chase Cancer Center, had sought attorney fees as the prevailing party and sanctions against the plaintiff under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Legal Intelligencer noted Dalzell’s ruling (PDF).

Littler Mendelson’s motion for about $126,000 in attorney fees had included 105 pages of invoices in which every line describing the legal services rendered was redacted, Dalzell wrote. The law firm’s Rule 11 motion had seven pages with legal-services redactions. The Rule 11 motion also said it “need not comply with all the procedural requirements” of Rule 11 as doing so “would be impractical,” Dalzell said.

Dalzell required Littler Mendelson to pay costs under Section 1927 of the federal statute governing judicial procedure, which imposes liability for causing excessive costs. “Because the motions were so deficient,” he said, “we find that they were filed for the improper purpose of harassing the opponent by burdening her with a needless defense.”

The plaintiff, former clerical employee Elaine Barley, had alleged in her disability bias suit that Fox Chase failed to accommodate her asthma. She lost the case on summary judgment under a theory of estoppel because her claim was contrary to her position—that she was totally disabled—in her quest to acquire Social Security disability benefits. Littler Mendelson had argued that Barley should not have pursued her case after it pointed out the estoppel problem.

In its request for attorney fees, “Littler Mendelson failed to provide any detail of the nature of services it provided for Fox Chase,” Dalzell wrote. “Indeed, the firm submitted page after blacked-out page as if guarding top-secret information involving national security. Not one description of services rendered escaped into the light. As a result, we have no evidence, let alone sufficient evidence, with which to make a fair evaluation of the time expended, nor can Barley contest any entry or hourly charge.”

Dalzell noted that Littler offered, “as an afterthought dropped into a footnote,” to supply more detailed fee information. That didn’t satisfy Dalzell. “That ship has sailed,” he wrote.

Littler Mendelson also failed to follow the procedure required in Rule 11 sanctions requests, Dalzell said. “In a fit of unaccustomed candor, Fox Chase concedes that Rule 11 obliged it to first serve Barley with the proposed motion and wait for 21 days so Barley might withdraw the offending filing,” Dalzell wrote. But the law firm said compliance with the requirement would be “impractical” after Barley sought summary judgment.

Dalzell was not persuaded. “Rule 11’s safe harbor is not optional,” he wrote. He also noted the redactions in the billing record and said the problem would also have defeated “this latest take-it-on-faith filing.”

Richard Harris was Littler’s lead lawyer in the case. “Littler was not given the opportunity to respond to the motion for sanctions and plans to appeal the judge’s ruling,” he said in a statement issued by the law firm. “At this time, we have no further comment.”

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