Judge sanctions Trump and his lead lawyer nearly $1M for 'pattern of misuse of the courts'

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AP Donald Trump November 2022 Former President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, in November 2022. A Florida judge has sanctioned Trump and one of his attorneys, Alina Habba, ordering them to pay nearly $1 million for filing what the judge said was a bogus lawsuit against Trump’s 2016 rival Hillary Clinton and others. Photo by Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press.

A federal judge in West Palm Beach, Florida, has sanctioned former President Donald Trump and his lead lawyer nearly $1 million for a lawsuit filed against Hillary Clinton and other defendants claiming “a malicious conspiracy” to spread false information and rig the 2016 presidential election.

U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks of the Southern District of Florida ruled that Trump, his lead counsel Alina Habba and her law firm Habba Madaio & Associates are jointly and severally liable for a $937,989 sanction imposed for a “completely frivolous” case.

The sanction covers attorney fees and costs for 18 defendants in the suit. Middlebrooks previously ordered four Trump lawyers to pay a $50,000 fine and more than $16,000 in legal fees for another defendant, a Democratic public relations executive. Habba was among those sanctioned.

Middlebrooks began the Jan. 19 opinion this way: “This case should never have been brought. Its inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. Intended for a political purpose, none of the counts of the amended complaint stated a cognizable legal claim.”

Middlebrooks said these claims were inadequate:

    • The statute of limitations for racketeering claims should be tolled because of Trump’s duties while he was president. Middlebrooks said Trump found time to file other civil actions in his personal capacity while he was president.

    • Tthe defendants were liable for malicious prosecution, even though there was no prosecution.

    • There was personal jurisdiction in Florida based on an argument that the defendants “knew that Florida is a state in the United States which was an important one.”

    • The defendants were liable under a trade secrets claim, even though there was no trade secret or ownership.

    • The defendants were liable for obstruction of justice, despite the claim being “untethered to any official proceeding.”

“The plaintiff recklessly advanced claims foreclosed by existing precedent that the most basic legal research would have revealed,” Middlebrooks said. “It was not that the complaint and amended complaint were inadequate in any respect, they were inadequate in nearly every respect.”

Middlebrooks, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, said the case is part of a “pattern of misuse of the courts” by Trump for political purposes.

He mentioned suits that:

    • Claimed defamation by the Pulitzer Prize Board for awarding the 2018 Pulitzer Prize to the New York Times and the Washington Post for reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

    • Alleged that an investigation of the Trump Organization’s business practices by the New York attorney general violated Trump’s constitutional rights. The suit was filed in New York federal court. Trump later filed another suit against the New York attorney general in Florida state court.

    • Alleged that Twitter violated the First Amendment by censoring Trump’s speech.

    • Sued CNN for libel for publishing an opinion article contending that Trump should have been charged for “soliciting dirt” on his opponents from a foreign government. He later filed another defamation suit against CNN claiming that the actual-malice standard should not apply when a defendant “seeks to participate in the political arena by offering propaganda.”

Middlebrooks said Trump uses “a playbook” when filing suits that includes boastful rhetoric, a political narrative carried over from rallies, attacks on opponents and the news media, disregard for legal principles and precedent, and fundraising and payments to lawyers from political action committees. When courts issue adverse rulings, accusations of bias are made.

Trump “is the mastermind of strategic abuse of the judicial process,” Middlebrooks said.

Hat tip to Reuters, Law360 and Politico, which covered the opinion.

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