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To Sanction or Not to Sanction: Federal Court Finds Early Motions for Sanctions Premature

Katerina P. Vassil

To Sanction or Not to Sanction: Federal Court Finds Early Motions for Sanctions Premature
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Plaintiffs in Savignac, et al., v. Jones Day, et al., case number 1:19-cv-02443 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, are two former Jones Day employees that filed suit in 2019 alleging, amongst other things, that the law firm’s parental-leave policy discriminates based on sex. In December 2022, Jones Day filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions, arguing that the plaintiffs’ claims lacked factual and evidentiary support and are per se unreasonable. The employer’s motion for sanctions also sought attorney fees and costs.

Less than two months later, the plaintiffs fired back with their own request for Rule 11 sanctions, arguing that their claims do have merit and are not sanctionable. In turn, the plaintiffs’ motion argued that the defendants’ motion was meritless to the point of being unreasonable and was therefore sanctionable. The plaintiffs also argued that the defendants’ requests for sanctions in the form of attorney fees were intended to harass them and discourage others from bringing similar claims against the employer. Essentially, the plaintiffs sought sanctions against the employer for their attempts to sanction the plaintiffs—with the goal of deterring the filing of even more Rule 11 sanctions later in the litigation.

Rule 11(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a court to impose sanctions on any party that it determines to be in violation of Rule 11(b), which sets out the requirements for representations made to the court. Rule 11(b) rule requires that representations made to the court are:

  • not presented for an improper purpose,
  • supported by existing law or nonfrivolous argument,
  • supported by evidence or will have evidentiary support following reasonable discovery, and
  • that any denials of factual contentions are warranted.

Thus, parties may seek Rule 11 sanctions when certain conditions are met, but courts are often hesitant to grant motions for sanctions unless they are clearly warranted. In Savignac, U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss denied both parties’ sanctions request on the basis that the motions were filed at an inappropriate stage of the litigation, i.e., while deliberations are ongoing and there are pending summary-judgment motions awaiting oral argument and decision. In his order, Judge Moss seriously questioned both parties’ intentions to seek sanctions at this stage and highlighted the extensive briefs filed by both parties, stating that these may not have been “an optimal use of the parties’ time.”

At the conclusion of his order, Judge Moss left the door open for both parties to renew their motions in a more concise and targeted fashion once summary-judgment motions had been decided. However, he cautioned against renewing the motions for sanctions just to renew them, and advised both parties to refrain from renewing motions unless they genuinely believe them necessary to deter further improper behavior.

Attorneys should think twice before filing motions for sanctions, especially during early stages of litigation, unless circumstances truly call for them. Unnecessary and time-consuming motions burden the court and may place parties in an unfavorable light before the judge. Ultimately, attorneys must carefully weigh litigation strategy at each stage of the case.