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Disregard of Local Rule Leads to Loss on Summary Judgment

Benjamin E. Long

Summary

  • Court strikes noncompliant statement of facts, calls it “antilawyering."
Disregard of Local Rule Leads to Loss on Summary Judgment
Chonlatit Thanoosorn via Getty Images

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Lawyers who fail to follow the rules may end up losing. A federal appellate court held that a district court did not abuse its discretion in striking a party’s entire statement of facts in opposition to a summary judgment motion for noncompliance with local rules, and then entering summary judgment against that party. In the ruling, the court reiterated that litigants are expected “to know and follow local rules of practice” and that failing to do so “can prove fatal.” ABA Litigation Section leaders caution that even comparatively minor rule violations could lead to the same end.

Court Strikes Statement of Facts in Support of Summary Judgment

In Hinterberger v. City of Indianapolis, the plaintiff sued the City of Indianapolis for failing to follow through on promises to help fund a development project. The city contended that the plaintiff failed to meet all the preconditions for funding. As a result, the plaintiff was unable to proceed with the project, which caused him to default on various loans and declare bankruptcy.

The city moved for summary judgment. The plaintiff submitted the required statement of facts in support of its opposition to the city’s motion. However, the “statement misrepresented the evidence, contained inaccurate and misleading citations to the record, and presented improper arguments rather than materially disputed facts.” Since the statement “ha[d] all the appearance of diligence and competence without a crumb of their substance,” the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana struck the entire statement of facts for failing to comply with its local rules and entered judgment for the city.

Local Rules Intended to Ease Burden, Not Create Busywork

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concluded the result was not too harsh and affirmed the judgment. It pointed out that summary judgment “requires the parties and courts alike to roll up their sleeves.” Specifically, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c)(1) requires a “party asserting that a fact cannot be or is generally disputed” to support that position by citing “particular parts of materials in the record” or, conversely, “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.”

The appellate court also emphasized that under long-standing precedent, “district courts may require strict compliance with their local rules” and that a judge’s interpretation of his or her local rules was to be given “considerable weight.” It further explained that the purpose of Local Rule 56-1 was not to make busywork, but to enable the district court to quickly isolate which, if any, specific facts are disputed and to identify the specific evidence in the record supporting each party’s position.

The district court’s Local Rule 56-1 additionally required the movant to submit a statement of undisputed facts and the opposing party to then respond with a statement of material facts in dispute. It also required parties to support each asserted fact “with a citation to a discovery response, a deposition, an affidavit, or other admissible evidence.” In turn, each citation had to “refer to a page or paragraph number or otherwise similarly specify where the relevant information can be found in the supporting evidence.” The undisputed facts presented by the movant would be admitted under Local Rule 56-1 unless the opposing party “specifically controvert[ed]” them.

Noncompliant Statement of Facts Amounted to “Antilawyering”

The Seventh Circuit identified a number of problems that justified the district court’s decision to strike the plaintiff’s statement of facts, which essentially amounted to a death knell. In particular, the appellate courted the statement contained unsupported arguments, misleading citations to exhibits, and outright misstatements of evidence. For example, one cited exhibit contained 28 completely redacted pages. Two exhibits were duplicative. Facts that purportedly controverted the city’s statement of facts lacked any citation to any record evidence.

The plaintiff even misrepresented deposition testimony. In one example, the plaintiff said that a witness testified that a particular letter of commitment from the city was “unconditional” when the witness actually contradicted the plaintiff’s claim and stated that it was “pretty clear that those offerings were contingent.” The plaintiff’s statement of facts also alleged that a city employee testified that he could not work with the plaintiff because of the witness’s comments about the letter of commitment, even though the employee never referred to that witness or those comments at deposition.

In light of those improprieties, the Seventh Circuit concluded that “[s]triking the entire statement (rather than only the offending material) was not too harsh because requiring the district court to sift through ‘improper denials and legal argument in search of a genuinely disputed fact’ would defeat the purpose of the rule.” It added that “[t]he court does not shoulder the obligation to separate the fair from the foul, doing the work for the parties and identifying what facts are truly disputed.” Or, as the district court put it, “this is not lawyering in good faith. It is lawyering by confusion, equivocation, and obfuscation. It is antilawyering.”

The appellate court also held that “[i]t makes no difference that the district court . . . declined to sanction [plaintiff’s counsel],” concluding that “[s]triking a noncompliant Rule 56‐1 statement that creates an intolerable amount of work for the court but later declining to impose sanctions was reasonable.” Though it was ultimately the plaintiff and not his counsel that paid the price for these tactics, the Seventh Circuit explained that “[a] litigant bears the risk of errors made by his chosen agent.”

Section Leaders Advise Practitioners to Defer to Local Counsel

“Locals rules are meant to streamline the litigation process by supplementing the Federal Rules,” affirms Sidney W. Degan III, New Orleans, LA, cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Admiralty Committee. “Local rules have the force of law and govern all legal proceedings. Failure to follow them can result in adverse outcomes for litigants,” he warns. “In this case, it was clear that the plaintiff’s violation of the local rules was more than just technical—the plaintiff substantively violated the rule by providing unsupported facts,” Degan observes.

“The court reached the right decision in this case,” concludes Naomi M. Berry, Miami, FL, cochair of the Section’s Business Torts & Unfair Competition Committee. “The failure here was far more than using the wrong font size,” she points out. “Attorneys practicing outside of their usual jurisdiction should hire local counsel who better understand local rules and procedures and how local judges expect them to be followed,” advises Berry.

Section leaders caution that a rule violation does not need to be as egregious to reach the same result. “The determination in this case is simply based on a failure to follow the rules,” states David Y. Loh, New York, NY, cochair of the Section’s Admiralty Committee. “Such a failure to follow local rules, irrespective of substance, is enough to reach the same result,” he warns. As the court pointed out in this case, “the case begins and ends with the recognition that district courts may require strict compliance with their local rules—a point we have recognized time and again.”

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