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Ramashwar v. Esponoza

January 6, 2006

TIKAPERSAUD RAMASHWAR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
POLICE OFFICER OTTO ESPINOZA & POLICE OFFICER VINCENT FINNEGAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Peck, United States Magistrate Judge:

OPINION AND ORDER

After moving for summary judgment, defendants also moved for sanctions against plaintiff Tikapersaud Ramashwar's former counsel, Thomas G. Sheehan, Esq. and Doric Sam, Esq., pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and the Court's inherent power to supervise its docket. (Dkt. No. 24: Defs. Notice of Sanctions Motion.) Defendants seek sanctions against Sheehan on the grounds that he (1) "fail[ed] to investigate the allegations of the complaint before bringing suit" and (2) "fail[ed] and refus[ed] to withdraw plaintiff's claims after he knew or should have known that plaintiff's claims were not viable." (Dkt. No. 30: Defs. Sanctions Br. at 1.) Defendants claim Sam is "jointly responsible for any penalty imposed by this Court, as he participated in the prosecution of this lawsuit. . . ." (Id.)

Defendants have requested $26,063.10 in attorneys' fees and $3,708.00 in costs. (Dkt. No. 48: 12/12/05 Scharfstein Aff. ¶¶ 3, 9.)

For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is DENIED as against Sam and GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as against Sheehan; the Court awards defendants $3,000 in Rule 11 sanctions against Sheehan.

FACTS

The underlying facts of this case are set forth in the Court's Opinion and Order granting defendants summary judgmenton plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim and dismissing Ramaswhar's case in its entirety, and will not be repeated here. See Ramashwar v. Espinoza, 05 Civ. 2021, 2006 WL 23481 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2006) (Peck, M.J.).

On February 10, 2005, Sheehan signed and filed Ramashwar's complaint alleging various constitutional torts under 28 U.S.C. § 1983. (See Dkt. No. 1: Compl.) According to Sheehan, at the time he commenced the action, he had reviewed the grand jury minutes and first trial transcript from Ramashwar's criminal case, as well as "police reports, prosecution reports, interviews with the plaintiff and conversations with [Ramashwar's] criminal defense attorney Todd Greenberg." (Dkt. No. 35: Sheehan Aff. ¶ 3.)

On June 21, 2005, defendants sent Sheehan a Rule 11 "safe harbor" letter, informing Sheehan of their intention to move for sanctions if Sheehan did not withdraw the lawsuit. (Dkt. No. 26: 10/3/05 Scharfstein Aff. Ex. R: 6/21/05 Scharfstein Safe Harbor Letter to Sheehan.) Defendants pointed to the malicious prosecution claim along with the "derivative" claims alleged in the complaint, i.e., "failure to intervene, conspiracy and Monell [municipal] liability." (Id. at 2-3.) Sheehan never responded to this letter.

On June 27, 2005, the parties stipulated to an order dismissing Ramashwar's false arrest claim. (10/3/05 Scharfstein Aff. Ex. T: 6/27/05 Stip. & Peck Order.) At the court conference discussing this issue, Sam appeared on Ramashwar's behalf. (See generally Dkt. No. 9: 6/27/05 Peck Conf. Tr.)

On August 10, 2005, the Court granted defendants' request that Ramashwar be precluded from offering evidence as to any damages reflected in documents that had not yet been produced in light of a previous Court order requiring Ramshwar to have produced such documents by July 27. (Dkt. No. 12: 8/11/05 Peck Memo Endorsed Order.)

On August 15, 2005, the discovery period closed. (Dkt. No. 4: Judge Wood Sched. Order; Dkt. No. 5: Rule 26(f) Disc. Plan; Dkt. No. 9: 6/27/05 Peck Conf. Tr. at 2.)

Also on August 15, Sheehan was suspended from the practice of law in New York State. (8/31/05 Sheehan Letter.) Sheehan was suspended from practice in the Southern District effective September 15, 2005. (8/22/05 Order.)

On August 17, 2005, after receiving no response to their "safe harbor" letter and no discovery to support Ramashwar's claims -- Sheehan had not sought testimony during the depositions of the defendant police officers concerning the grand jury proceedings and had not taken any discovery relating to the "derivative" claims (10/3/05 Scharfstein Aff. Ex. V: 8/17/05 Scharfstein Letter at 3-4 & n.2) -- defendants requested a pre-motion conference to address their proposed motion for summary judgment in an attempt "to avoid costly and unnecessary motion practice." (Id. at 4.)

On September 6, 2005, Sheehan failed to appear for that conference; the Court sanctioned him $500 and ordered him to reimburse defendants the cost of the conference transcript.*fn1

(10/3/05 Scharfstein Aff. Ex. X: 9/6/05 Peck Order, & Ex. W: 9/6/05 Peck Conf. Tr. at 12.) The Court also observed that Sam, as an associate of Sheehan's who had appeared at prior conferences, still represented Ramashwar until such time as he requested leave to withdraw. (9/6/05 Peck Order.)

On September 26, 2005, Ramashwar's new counsel, Fred Lichtmacher, Esq., filed his notice of appearance. (Dkt. No. 18: Notice of Appearance.) On September 27, defendants served a "safe harbor" letter on Lichtmacher. (Dkt. No. 46: Scharfstein SJ Reply Aff. Ex. R: 9/27/05 Scharfstein Safe Harbor Letter to Lichtmacher.) Later that day, on Lichtmacher's consent, all claims except for Ramashwar's malicious prosecution claim were dismissed with prejudice. (Dkt. No. 19: 9/27/05 Peck Order; accord, 10/3/05 Scharfstein Aff. Ex. Z: 9/27/05 Peck Order.)

ANALYSIS

I. SHEEHAN VIOLATED RULE 11 BY PLEADING FRIVOLOUS "DERIVATIVE" CLAIMS IN THE COMPLAINT

A. The Legal Standard Governing Rule 11

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides in pertinent part:

(b) Representations to Court. By presenting to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating) a pleading, written motion, or other paper, an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the person's knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances, -- . . .

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a non-frivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of ...


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