Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Texas
SOUTHWICK, WILLETT, and OLDHAM, Circuit Judges.
WILLETT, Circuit Judge.
abuse is nothing new. Since 1813, when James Madison was
president, a one-sentence federal statute has authorized
monetary sanctions against attorneys who misuse the
litigation process. The penalty
started off light. For the first 167 years, lawyers who
"vexatiously and unreasonably" multiplied legal
proceedings were liable only for excess costs. But since 1980, 28 U.S.C. § 1927 has
taken a harder line against abusive litigation tactics,
broadening lawyers' personal financial exposure to
include "expenses and attorneys'
fees." Incentives matter. For more
than a generation now, pocket-conscious parties have sought
hefty § 1927 sanctions, and docket-conscious courts have
appeal, attorney John Morgan appeals the § 1927
sanctions imposed against him for advancing a meritless,
immunity-barred claim against Judge Layne Walker. Reviewing
for abuse of discretion, we cannot conclude that the district
court, which was best positioned to assess the propriety of
Morgan's litigation misconduct, erred in sanctioning him
under § 1927. We AFFIRM.
2006, Stella Morrison represented a criminal defendant, Peter
Tran, in a case before Judge Walker. During this proceeding, Judge Walker
averred that Morrison suborned perjury by enticing her client
to make a false statement and then filing that statement with
the court. Judge Walker allegedly reported this to the
district attorney and to the State Bar of Texas. A grand jury
hearing and State Bar grievance correspondence
years later, Morrison, through her attorney Morgan, sued
Judge Walker, alleging in part
that Judge Walker fabricated the perjury charge against
her. Although Morrison didn't
specify what prompted Judge Walker's accusation, she
stated it was unrelated to any "pending proceeding
lawfully assigned to" Judge Walker's court. This
assertion was critical: If Judge Walker's allegedly false
charge arose from actions taken in his judicial capacity, he
enjoyed judicial immunity.
other details about Morrison's suit merit mention. Morgan
concedes that the original complaint was light on details, a
deficiency he attributes to Morrison's self-described
memory deficits. Also, as supporting evidence, Morrison
attached an affidavit by Bailiff Rodney Williams that
mentioned Morrison's 2006 representation of Peter Tran
before Judge Walker. Morrison's complaint also referenced
grievance documents that Judge Walker had filed against her
with the State Bar of Texas.
Walker filed a motion to dismiss based almost entirely on
judicial immunity. The court granted the motion for most of
Morrison's claims, but it declined to dismiss the
falsified-perjury claim. The court stated this claim was not
patently frivolous and could proceed if Morrison amended her
complaint to include specific facts showing why judicial
immunity was inapplicable. The court instructed Morrison to
answer seven specific questions in her amended complaint,
including clarifying where, specifically, the event spurring
the perjury charge occurred.
January 2014, Morrison, through her attorney Morgan, filed an
amended complaint, relying largely on her own testimony. The
amended complaint partially responded to the court's
questions and doubled-down on the assertion that Judge
Walker's perjury accusation "had nothing to do with
a case that was pending or had been adjudicated in
Walker's Court." In May 2014, Morrison filed a
second amended complaint, adding additional defendants, with
the same factual contentions.
Walker's response included a transcript from the
Peter Tran case. Contrary to Morrison's previous
assertions and re-assertions that Judge Walker's perjury
charge was unrelated to any matter in his court, the
transcript proved that to be untrue. It removed any doubt
that the falsified-perjury claim arose from Morrison's
representation of Peter Tran in Judge Walker's court.
Days later, Morgan, on Morrison's behalf, filed a
sur-reply, promising to show Morrison the transcript and
inform the court of her response. Six months passed.
August 2015, the court ordered Morrison to detail the event
that led to the perjury charge and state whether it occurred
in Judge Walker's court. Morrison admitted the transcript
was accurate. Her falsified-perjury claim arose from events
in the Peter Tran case and, since Judge Walker
presided over that case, her claim had been barred by
judicial immunity the whole time. Morgan filed a motion to
dismiss Judge Walker from the lawsuit on August 28, 2015.
Walker moved under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 for attorney fees
and expenses totaling $167,232.40. After conducting an
extensive hearing where Morrison showed "no memory
deficit" regarding the Peter Tran case, the
court issued a 28-page order imposing § 1927 sanctions
of $29,592.50. The court found that these sanctions were
justified beginning in January 2014 but, in its discretion
and "choosing to dispense mercy graciously," only
imposed sanctions for Morgan's conduct between May 20,
2014 and August 28, 2015. Morgan appealed.
§ 1927, a federal court may award attorney fees, costs,
and expenses that were "reasonably incurred"
because of the attorney's misconduct. We review § 1927 sanction awards for
abuse of discretion. We do not substitute our judgment for
that of the district court, and we will not alter a sanction
award unless the court "award[ed] sanctions based on an
erroneous view of the law or on a clearly erroneous
assessment of the evidence."
§ 1927 sanctions are discretionary, they cannot be
imposed for mere negligence. As the statute makes clear, § 1927
sanctions are reserved for situations where counsel
"unreasonably" and "vexatiously"
multiplies legal proceedings. Conduct is "unreasonable and
vexatious" if there is evidence of the "persistent
prosecution of a meritless claim" and of a
"reckless disregard of the duty owed to the
court." An attorney
acts with "reckless disregard" of his duty to the
court when he, without reasonable inquiry, advances a
baseless claim despite clear evidence undermining his factual
sanction to be affirmed, the district court must have made
detailed factual findings, including (1) identifying the
sanctionable conduct as distinct from the case's merits,
(2) linking the sanctionable conduct and the sanction's
size, and (3) identifying the legal basis for each
the district court's 28 pages of detailed fact-finding
and analysis through the deferential "abuse of
discretion" lens, we hold that the district court did
not abuse its discretion in levying a § 1927 sanction
against Morgan for his conduct from May 2014 through August
cannot be seriously disputed that Morgan multiplied the
proceedings. The record shows that he repeatedly made filings
based only on the meritless falsified-perjury
claim. Nor can it be denied that
Morgan's multiplication of the proceedings was
unreasonable and ...