Inherent Power Sanction in Interest of “Fairness” Unsustainable Absent Finding of Bad Faith

Tucker v. Williams, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11262 (7th Cir. June 5, 2012):

After investigating a report that Kendall Tucker was in possession of a stolen backhoe, Karl Williams, a state law enforcement investigator, seized the backhoe without a warrant. Tucker brought a civil rights action in district court, claiming that his rights under the Fourth Amendment and Due Process Clause were violated. The district court disagreed and dismissed Tucker's claims on summary judgment. We affirm.***

C. Sanctions

The district court entered sanctions against Williams, awarding Tucker attorney's fees in the amount of $3,000 for the time Tucker's attorney spent responding to Williams' motion for leave to file a supplemental motion for summary judgment and the actual supplemental motion for summary judgment. In support of its sanction, the district court stated that Williams' briefing on the post-seizure due process issue was "inadequate"; that litigation should not be "conducted piecemeal"; and that if the court did not grant Williams' supplemental motion for summary judgment, the result "would have been to put [him] to the expense of a trial." The district court then determined that, in "fairness to" Tucker, sanctions were proper in the exercise of the court's "inherent authority."

We review a district court's imposition of sanctions under its inherent authority for an abuse of discretion. Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 55 (1991); Cleveland Hair Clinic, Inc., v. Puig, 200 F.3d 1063, 1066 (7th Cir. 2000). Sanctions imposed pursuant to the district court's inherent power are appropriate where a party has willfully abused the judicial process or otherwise conducted litigation in bad faith. Salmeron v. Enter. Recovery Sys., Inc., 579 F.3d 787, 793 (7th Cir. 2009); Maynard v. Nygren, 332 F.3d 462, 470-71 (7th Cir. 2003); see also Runfola & Assoc., Inc. v. Spectrum Reporting II, Inc., 88 F.3d 368, 375 (6th Cir. 1996); Gillette Foods Inc. v. Bayernwald-Fruchteverwertung, GmbH, 977 F.2d 809, 813-14 (3d Cir. 1992) (prerequisite to a sanction under the inherent power is a finding of bad faith).

Without a finding that Williams acted in bad faith or engaged in misconduct, the district court sanctioned him, seemingly, in the interest of "fairness." This is precisely the sort of sanction that is outside the court's inherent power and that we have cautioned against in the past. We have stated that a district court must exercise restraint and caution in exercising its inherent power. Schmude v. Sheahan, 420 F.3d 645, 650 (7th Cir. 2005). And it is "not a grant of authority to do good, rectify shortcomings of the common law. . . or undermine the American rule on the award of attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in the absence of statute." Zapata Hermanos Sucesores, S.A. v. Hearthside Baking Co., Inc., 313 F.3d 385, 391 (7th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).

Here, the district court did not articulate a valid basis on which to award attorney's fees as a sanction; indeed, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that Williams' failure to notify Tucker of his intention to file a supplemental motion for summary judgment was in bad faith, designed to obstruct the judicial process, or a violation of a court order. At worst, the evidence suggests that even if Williams' conduct amounted to clumsy lawyering, it was not sufficient to warrant sanctions under the court's inherent authority.

The district court's and Tucker's frustration may be understandable but by upholding this sanction — without a finding of bad faith — we would be imposing a level of foresight and efficiency that is simply unattainable in litigation. Efficiency, unfortunately, has never been an earmark of litigation. Lawyering must be in good faith; it need not be omniscient. The district court's award of attorney's fees was an abuse of its discretion, and we reverse that ruling.