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Morrison v. Walker

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 1, 2019

STELLA MORRISON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
LAYNE WALKER; JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS; DEPUTY ANTHONY BARKER; THOMAS MANESS,Defendants-Appellees. JOHN STEPHEN MORGAN, Appellant,

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

          Before SOUTHWICK, WILLETT, and OLDHAM, Circuit Judges.

          DON R. WILLETT, Circuit Judge.

         Litigation 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.[1] The penalty started off light. For the first 167 years, lawyers who "vexatiously and unreasonably" multiplied legal proceedings were liable only for excess costs.[2] 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."[3] Incentives matter. For more than a generation now, pocket-conscious parties have sought hefty § 1927 sanctions, and docket-conscious courts have granted them.

         In this 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.

         I

         In 2006, Stella Morrison represented a criminal defendant, Peter Tran, in a case before Judge Walker.[4] 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 ensued.[5]

         Seven years later, Morrison, through her attorney Morgan, sued Judge Walker,[6] alleging in part that Judge Walker fabricated the perjury charge against her.[7] 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.[8]

         A few 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.

         Judge 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.

         In 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.

         Judge 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.

         In 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.

         Judge 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.

         II

         Under § 1927, a federal court may award attorney fees, costs, and expenses that were "reasonably incurred" because of the attorney's misconduct.[9] We review § 1927 sanction awards for abuse of discretion.[10] 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."[11]

         Although § 1927 sanctions are discretionary, they cannot be imposed for mere negligence.[12] As the statute makes clear, § 1927 sanctions are reserved for situations where counsel "unreasonably" and "vexatiously" multiplies legal proceedings.[13] 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."[14] 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 contentions.[15]

         For its 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 sanction.[16]

         III

         Viewing 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 2015.

         It 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.[17] Nor can it be denied that Morgan's multiplication of the proceedings was unreasonable and ...


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