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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2021

Absence of Local Counsel Not Grounds for Case Dismissal

Kelso Lorne St. Jacques Anderson


  • Court holds attorney’s failure to comply with local rule cannot result in dismissal under FRCP 41(b) without other aggravating factors.
  • Section leaders state the ruling does not interfere with the authority of district courts to enforce their local rules.
  • The ruling should prompt counsel to ensure compliance with local rules.
Absence of Local Counsel Not Grounds for Case Dismissal
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An attorney’s failure to comply with local rules is not a considered rationale for a court’s sua sponte dismissal of the case pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 41(b), according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. According to ABA Litigation Section leaders, the ruling does not interfere with the authority of district courts to enforce their local rules and should prompt counsel to ensure compliance with local rules.

Disregard for Local Rules

The conflict in Campbell v. Wilkinson began when the plaintiff filed an employment lawsuit against his employer in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Soon after filing, the Electronic Case Filing (ECF) system reminded the plaintiff’s counsel that he had 14 days to comply with a local rule or “risk the possible dismissal of this case without prejudice or without further notice.” Local Rule 83.10(a) provides that “local counsel is required in all cases where an attorney appearing in a case does not reside or maintain the attorney’s principal office in this district.”

The plaintiff’s counsel neither resided in nor maintained an office in the Northern District of Texas; he made a unilateral decision that the local rule was inapplicable to him since he practiced for decades in the Northern District and resided less than 10 miles away in the Eastern District. About six weeks after issuing the ECF notice, the district court reviewed the case and concluded that the plaintiff’s counsel was not in compliance with the local rule. The court then dismissed the case without prejudice under Rule 41(b). The plaintiff’s counsel then filed motions to reconsider the dismissal and to proceed without local counsel. Because counsel waited 45 days between the ECF notification and the court’s dismissal before filing the motions, the court also denied the motions. The plaintiff appealed the district court’s dismissal.

Improper Dismissal

Relying on its interpretation of Rule 41(b) and precedent, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The appellate court noted that the letter of Rule 41(b) permits a defendant to dismiss an action or claim against it if “the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with these rules or a court order.” The court then cited dicta for the proposition that Rule 41(b) permits dismissal “not only on motion of the defendant, but also on the court’s own motion.”

Since Rule 41(b) makes no reference to “local rules,” the court then posited whether its proper to apply Rule 41(b) where a mere violation of a local rule is at issue. Answering its inquiry in the affirmative, the court distinguished Berry v. CIGNA/RSI-CIGNA, in which that plaintiff’s counsel failed to comply with a local rule that required a plaintiff to move for a default judgment. In Berry, the plaintiff’s failure to move for a default judgment under the local rule was deemed a failure to prosecute and an involuntary dismissal under Rule 41(b). Here, unlike Berry, counsel’s failure to hire local counsel did not affect the timing or resolution of the litigation, the court concluded.

Finally, the court concluded that only in cases where aggravating factors exist has it affirmed a district court’s dismissal with prejudice. Among those aggravating factors, the court noted, are a record of delay by the actual plaintiff (not counsel), prejudice to a defendant, or intentional delay by a party. Here, the court concluded that none of the aggravating factors were present and because the litigation would be time-barred on remand, the district court’s dismissal without prejudice was tantamount to a dismissal with prejudice.

District Court Autonomy

Although the appellate court held that dismissal was improper, several Litigation Section leaders conclude that the ruling does not impinge upon a district court’s autonomy to enforce its local rules. “The decision does not unduly interfere with the district court’s ability to enact and enforce its local rules,” affirms Jason P. Kairalla, Miami, FL, cochair, of the Litigation Section’s Appellate Practice Committee. “Rather, it is a fairly straightforward application of Rule 41(b) and the court’s prior precedent,” Kairalla observes. Echoing Kairalla, Jerry M. Cutler, New York, NY, cochair of the Section’s Employment & Labor Relations Law Committee also states he “do[es] not believe the appellate court undermined the ability of federal district courts to enact and enforce local rules.” Instead, Cutler adds, “dismissing a case is a severe sanction which may be more appropriate in cases where the party against whom dismissal is sought is at fault.”

Local Rules Matter

Despite the plaintiff’s success on appeal, several Section leaders emphasize that it remains a best practice to learn and comply with local rules when litigating cases. “Knowing and complying with the local rules is critical,” stresses Blanca F. Young, San Francisco, CA, cochair of the Section’s Trial Practice Committee. “Failure to comply with the local rules can result in sanctions short of dismissal, it can alienate the judge, and it can harm the client,” Young warns. Sharing a similar viewpoint, Kairalla emphasizes, “local rule compliance is important. Lawyers that ignore them do so at their own—and their client’s—peril. In this case, complying with the local rule by seeking leave to proceed without local counsel would have been quick, simple, and inexpensive.”