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Court sanctions against attorneys are somewhat discretionary, according to a recent ruling by a federal district court. Judges can consider an attorney's ability to pay the fines when they impose sanctions.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded a case in which an attorney was sanctioned $360,000 under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. The lower court judge believed that he had no discretion in imposing the sanction on Gregory Melvin Haynes for pursuing frivolous litigation.
Haynes claims that he makes less than $20,000 annually which would make the court-imposed fine a significant burden.
The issue of whether Sec. 1927 sanctions can be reduced based on inability to pay had never before been presented to the Ninth Circuit, but it's not a new issue.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals previously reached a similar decision that sanctions can be reduced based on an attorney's income.
The Seventh Circuit made a different decision, holding that these sanctions are not discretionary, according to the ABA Journal.
Courts have discretion to determine whether an attorney's actions warrant sanctions. Under the newest ruling, courts within the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction also have leeway to determine the amount of those sanctions based on ability to pay.
Haynes had sued the city and county of San Francisco and several private individuals on behalf of a client, according to the ruling. His continued pursuit of the claims after it was clear that they were frivolous entitles the defendants to recovery of their attorney's fees.
The $360,000 sanction represents the excess costs and fees incurred as a result of Haynes improper actions.
This doesn't mean Haynes will get a lighter sanction when the case goes back to the lower court. It is possible that upon remand the case will come out the same but the court now has discretion to determine the appropriate sanction.
The split between the circuit courts means the issue of court sanctions might one day make it up to the Supreme Court. But in the meantime it's a reminder that frivolous suits will be punished and the sanctions aren't cheap.