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Brooks v. SAC Wireless, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 23, 2019

RUFUS BROOKS, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Rufus Brooks has sued SAC Wireless, LLC for employment discrimination. R. 1, Compl.[1] During the course of discovery, Defendant SAC Wireless filed a motion to dismiss as a sanction for Brooks' alleged misconduct during depositions. R. 35, Mot. Sanctions. After holding a live-witness hearing and on reviewing the parties' briefing, the Court grants SAC's motion and dismisses the case with prejudice.

         I. Background

         Brooks filed this case in May 2018, alleging that he had applied for 60 positions at SAC and was not hired for any of them due to his race or age. See generally Compl. Discovery began, and on February 21 and 22, 2019, Brooks was scheduled to take depositions of three SAC employees, Jeff Hamm, Kevin Pope, and Wanda Rodriguez, at the Chicago office of SAC's counsel, the law firm Thompson Coburn. Mot. Sanctions ¶¶ 1-2. In turn, SAC's deposition of Brooks was scheduled for the afternoon of February 22. Id. ¶ 2. Susan Lorenc, a partner at Thompson Coburn and a counsel of record for SAC, defended the first three depositions, which were of the SAC employees (the third took place on the morning of February 22). On the afternoon of the second day of depositions (February 22), SAC filed a motion “to terminate litigation and for sanctions” alleging that Brooks had behaved aggressively and threatened a witness during the depositions. See generally Mot. Sanctions. SAC was so alarmed that the motion also said that Brooks would not be allowed back into Thompson Coburn's office for his deposition that afternoon. Id. ¶ 3. After receiving the motion for sanctions, the Court set a briefing schedule and directed SAC to supplement the motion with affidavits and transcripts to back up its allegations. R. 37, 2/23/19 Minute Order. The Court also scheduled an evidentiary hearing for April 2, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. Id.

         II. Legal Standard

         District courts have inherent authority to sanction litigants for “conduct [that] abuses the judicial process.” Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44-45 (1991). That includes the power to dismiss a case if the misconduct is egregious enough. Id. In order to impose sanctions, a federal court must find by a preponderance of the evidence that “the culpable party willfully abused the judicial process or otherwise conducted the litigation in bad faith.” Ramirez v. T&H Lemont, Inc., 845 F.3d 772, 776-79 (7th Cir. 2016) (rejecting a clear-and-convincing evidence requirement for sanctions imposed both under Rule 37 and under the Court's inherent authority).

         After making that initial factual finding, a court has broad discretion to choose a sanction. That said, Seventh Circuit decisions instruct that in choosing the appropriate level of sanction to impose, a district court should keep an eye both to the egregiousness of the abuse of process alleged, as well as to whether the plaintiff should have known better. In Ladien v. Astrachan, the Seventh Circuit suggested that it might have reversed a dismissal if “the district court had dismissed [the] case for a single act of violative conduct.” 128 F.3d 1051, 1057 (7th Cir. 1997) (emphasis added). But in that case, in which the plaintiff had repeatedly contacted the represented defendants directly after the court warned him not to; failed many times to respond timely and adequately to discovery requests; and threatened to pursue criminal charges against the defendants if they did not settle, the Seventh Circuit found that dismissal was not an abuse of the trial court's discretion. Id.

         An opportunity to be heard is important too. The Seventh Circuit reversed a dismissal sanction where the plaintiff was not given a fair opportunity to respond to the allegation against him. In Birdo v. Urbansky, the clerk's office received a filing from the Plaintiff that contained a shard of glass. 619 Fed.Appx. 536, 536-38 (7th Cir. 2015) (nonprecedential disposition). The district court immediately dismissed the case with prejudice, without giving the plaintiff an opportunity to contest the factual basis for the dismissal. Id. at 537. The Seventh Circuit reversed for that reason, noting that the plaintiff had never done anything threatening before. Id. at 536-38.

         III. Analysis

         A. The Fairness of Brooks's Hearing

         Throughout the litigation of SAC's motion for sanctions, Brooks frequently contended that he was denied a fair opportunity to present his side of the story. That is wrong. After SAC filed its motion for sanctions on February 22, 2019, the Court ordered briefing. R. 37, 2/23/19 Minute Order. Brooks was directed to file a response by March 20 that included “pertinent evidence, including his own under-oath affidavit.” Id. The Court also set a hearing on the motion for April 2, 2019. Id. The order specified not only that it would be a “live-witness” hearing but further required that the parties “arrange for witness attendance (including testimony by the court reporter).” Id. (emphasis added). On March 6, SAC filed a supplement to its motion, including affidavits from several witnesses. R. 39, Def.'s Supp. Later that month, Brooks filed his response, which made no reference to SAC's supplement or any difficulty Brooks might have had in accessing it (this becomes important later, as explained below). R. 40, Pl.'s Resp. It also failed to include an affidavit or any other evidence. Id. SAC then filed its reply. R. 41, Def.'s. Reply.

         One day before the scheduled hearing, Brooks called the courtroom deputy to arrange to appear telephonically. R. 42, 4/1/19 Minute Order. The Court entered an order explaining that it should have been obvious that Brooks's in-person appearance would be required for a “live witness hearing.” Id. Nevertheless, “[o]ut of mercy and not good cause, ” the Court allowed Brooks to appear by telephone at the hearing. Id. At the hearing itself, Brooks claimed for the first time that he had not received SAC's supplement, R. 39, including its witnesses' affidavits. R. 44, 4/2/19 Minute Entry; R. 55-1, Def.'s Exh. A, Hrg. Tr. at 6:14-25. On the record, the Court made a finding that Brooks had in fact received the supplement. The Court's finding was based on the record evidence. First, the CM/ECF receipt from the filing showed that it was successfully sent to his email address. R. 44-1, CM/ECF Receipt; Hrg. Tr. at 7:1-13, 11:8-12. Second, SAC's counsel, Susan Lorenc, credibly reported that she emailed it directly to Brooks and that it did not bounce back. Hrg. Tr. at 9:4-16. Third, Brooks had participated in active litigation in the case since May 2018 without ever reporting a problem receiving CM/ECF filings to his email account. See Hrg. Tr. at 12:3-13:5. And finally, the supplement was required to be filed by the Court's initial order, R. 37, and referenced on the first page of SAC's reply, R. 41 ¶ 1, making it implausible that Brooks-who has not shrunk from filing motions and filing objections-would have refrained from complaining about the purported absence of the supplement after the deadline for filing it had passed.

         In light of that finding, the Court declined to postpone the hearing like Brooks asked and instead offered to let him participate by telephone. Hrg. Tr. at 13:8-14:8. Brooks initially stated that the would “just listen, ” without asking questions. Id. 14:3-15:17. He then objected to Lorenc's questions throughout the hearing and conducted extensive cross-examination. See generally id. SAC presented six witnesses. See generally id.

         At the end of SAC's presentation on April 2, the Court decided to continue the hearing to April 22, 2019 to give Brooks one last chance to present evidence. Brooks claimed that he had video-recorded evidence of witness Jeff Hamm's deposition, and the Court ordered that he disclose it to SAC by April 9 if he planned to use it. R. 44, 4/2/19 Minute Entry. He did not disclose or file anything by April 9. On April 12, Brooks filed a witness list on the docket. R. 45, Pl.'s Witness List. The list included three video depositions, Lorenc, and three unnamed employees of either SAC or Thompson Coburn. Id. at 1. SAC filed a motion to quash the witness list, arguing that the video depositions were redundant with the deposition transcripts and had not been furnished to SAC by April 9, that Lorenc's testimony would be duplicative, and that the witness list was untimely. R. 46, Mot. Quash at 3-5. Brooks then filed a competing motion to continue the hearing further, because SAC had not provided its original witness list to him until the day before the April 2 hearing (despite the fact that SAC had filed its supplement with the same witnesses' affidavits weeks before) and because SAC had refused to provide him with contact information for the unnamed witnesses on his list. R. 48, Mot. Continue ΒΆΒΆ 9-17, 20-22. The Court denied ...

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