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Cavelle v. Chicago Transit Authority

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

January 13, 2020



          Robert M. Dow, Jr. United States District Judge

         Before the Court is the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendations [105] regarding Defendant's motion for sanctions [77], as well as Plaintiff's objections to the Report and Recommendations [115]. The Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's findings of fact and some of her recommendations regarding sanctions, and defers ruling on other recommendations. Plaintiff's objections are overruled in part and deferred in part. Defendant's motion for sanctions [77] is granted in part, denied in part, and deferred in part; specifically, the request for attorneys' fees and costs is granted, the request to dismiss the case or the CTA as a defendant is denied, and the request to exclude a document from evidence is deferred. The Court directs Defendants to submit by January 31, 2020, requests for attorneys' fees consistent with the Court's Opinion, along with appropriate supporting materials. Plaintiff and his counsel may submit any objections to the fees submitted by Defendants by February 14, 2020. The Court will then determine the appropriate monetary sanction for the conduct at issue. Plaintiff's counsel, Sweeney Scharkey & Blanchard LLC, shall be responsible for 50% of this amount and Plaintiff shall be responsible for the other 50%.

         I. Background

         In August 2015, George Cavelle resigned from his position as Chief Transportation Operations Officer at the Chicago Transit Authority (“CTA”). He subsequently pursued a job at King County Metro Transit in Seattle, Washington, but ultimately did not receive it. On July 24, 2017, he filed a complaint [1] against the CTA, its president, and certain unknown CTA employees, alleging that they had interfered with his attempt to a job at King County Metro Transit. He also brought several defamation-based claims, attempting to hold Defendants responsible for allegedly harmful statements.

         The Court is now asked to consider Defendants' motion for sanctions, which seeks to hold Plaintiff and his counsel responsible for their allegedly harmful statement-namely, an accusation of witness tampering. On February 6, 2019, Plaintiff's counsel sent Defendants' counsel an email accusing the CTA of “blatant witness tampering” involving multiple witnesses. See [71-1] at 4. Over the next month, Defendants' counsel repeatedly sought basic information about the accusation, such as the identity of the alleged tamperer(s) and victim(s) of tampering. Plaintiff's counsel did not respond to those requests. On February 28, 2019, Defendants filed a motion [51] asking the Magistrate Judge, to whom the issue had been referred, to compel Plaintiff to identify the tamperer(s) and victim(s) of tampering. At a status hearing, Plaintiff's counsel admitted- contrary to previous assertions-that only a single witness had allegedly been tampered with, and he identified the witness as George Mendenhall. When pressed for the name of the alleged tamperer, Plaintiff's counsel confessed that he did not know and had to call his client to get the name. [77-1] at 94-95.

         The Magistrate Judge reminded Defendants' counsel of the seriousness of witness tampering and warned Plaintiff's counsel of the seriousness of accusing someone of witness tampering. Defendants asked for an evidentiary hearing to sort out the accusation. The Magistrate Judge decided to hold a hearing and weigh the credibility of the live testimony herself, and she ordered the parties not to contact Mr. Mendenhall or the alleged tamperer (referred to as “Individual A”) except to inform them of the need to appear and testify. See [71-1] at 93-94.

         Two weeks later, the Magistrate Judge held the evidentiary hearing. According to Plaintiff's testimony at the hearing, Mr. Mendenhall said that someone at CTA told him he would not be paid for his time meeting with attorneys about Plaintiff's case unless he testified “for CTA” (apparently meaning that his testimony must be favorable to the CTA). Id. at 160. Plaintiff admitted on cross, however, that that Mr. Mendenhall did not tell him that the CTA said Mr. Mendenhall would not be paid for time spend testifying. Id. at 175.

         Mr. Mendenhall also testified. He stated that he never told anyone that he was being threatened about his testimony in this case. Id. at 221-222, 226. His testimony also suggested that his concerns about “retaliation” and job security were related to his involvement in the case generally and his wife and baby's health problems, not because of anything specific that anyone at CTA did or said to him. Id. at 239-240. Also, while Plaintiff testified that Mr. Mendenhall said CTA counsel requested his financial records and his wife's financial records (id. at 165), Mendenhall specifically said that did not happen. Id. at 233-34. Individual A was also available, but neither Defendants' counsel nor Plaintiff's counsel called him to testify. Id. at 242.

         After the hearing, Defendants moved for sanctions based on Plaintiff and his counsel's unfounded accusation of witness tampering. [77]. Defendants sought to recover fees and costs for the evidentiary hearing and briefing the motion for sanctions. Defendants also asked for dismissal of the case or, in the alternative, exclusion of a document, the “Lookout Bulletin, ” that they expect Mr. Mendenhall would testify about if called at trial.

         The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation [105] that recommends granting the motion for sanctions in part. She found Mr. Mendenhall's testimony credible, but found Mr. Cavelle's testimony not to be credible, because it was “at times inconsistent and exaggerated, unsupported by any documentary evidence, and contradicted by [Mr.] Mendenhall.” [105] at 5. She concluded that Plaintiff and his counsel's accusations of witness tampering, their failure to correct or withdraw their allegations, and their failure to provide basic information to Defendants for the purpose of investigating the allegations, were sanctionable. Id. at 9-11; 13-16. She determined that an appropriate monetary sanction was an award of Defendants' reasonable attorneys' fees and costs for the evidentiary hearing and briefing on the motion for sanctions, split evenly between Plaintiff and his counsel. She also determined that dismissal of the entire case was not warranted, but instead recommended excluding the Lookout Bulletin.

         Plaintiff and his counsel filed objections [115] to the Report and Recommendation, which are now before this Court.

         II. Legal Standard

         A. Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

         “When a magistrate judge prepares a report and recommendation for a district court, the governing statute provides that the district court ‘shall make a de novo determination' with respect to any contested matter.” Kanter v. C.I.R., 590 F.3d 410, 416 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)). The Court of Appeals has observed:

De novo review requires the district judge to decide the case based on an independent review of the evidence and arguments without giving any presumptive weight to the magistrate judge's conclusion. The district judge is free, and encouraged, to consider all of the available information about the case when making this independent decision. A district judge may be persuaded by the reasoning of a magistrate judge or a special master while still engaging in an independent decision-making process.

Mendez v. Republic Bank, 725 F.3d 651, 661 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980)). The district judge makes the ultimate decision to adopt, reject, or modify the magistrate judge's recommendation. Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs., Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 760 (7th Cir. 2009); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 72.

         B. Sanctions Under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1927 and the ...

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