May 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Sanctions Award Inappropriate When Trigger was Date Expert Report Exchanged

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Baca v. Berry on Tuesday, December 1, 2015.

Several citizens brought suit in state court against Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in January 2013 over the city’s redistricting plan enacted after the 2010 caucus. The citizens alleged that the newly adopted redistricting map denied Latinos opportunities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice. The mayor removed the case to federal court.

In March 2013, a city charter amendment changed the percentage of the vote needed for a candidate to win from 40% to 50%. On June 25, 2013, the mayor produced an expert report that tended to disprove the plaintiffs’ arguments about redistricting. Later, the plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss without prejudice, which the mayor opposed, requesting dismissal with prejudice instead. The district court decided to wait to rule on the motions until after the November elections.

The court held a phone conference with the parties after the November elections and set a status conference in December 2013. However, the court cancelled the December conference due to scheduling conflicts and did not reschedule. In January 2014, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice. The mayor moved for sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, arguing the plaintiffs vexatiously multiplied the proceedings. The district court granted the mayor’s motion and entered an attorney fee award against plaintiffs beginning on June 25, 2013, the date the mayor’s expert submitted his report. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated the district court’s sanction award for abuse of discretion. The voters argued that the court’s order staying the case identified no legal prejudice to the mayor and was based solely on its convenience, which constitutes an abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Tenth Circuit first noted that there is a difference between a court staying proceedings and dismissing a case, and there was no abuse of discretion in the court’s stay order. The voters did not appeal the dismissal. The Tenth Circuit also noted that, contrary to the voters’ assertions, the court did not issue the stay merely out of convenience, but because it found the record incomplete and believed that the upcoming mayoral elections would provide direction whether to dismiss the case with or without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit similarly rejected the voters’ Voting Rights Act and one-person-one-vote claims. The Tenth Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ expert failed to satisfy the second and third prongs of the Gingles test. Because the mayor’s expert exposed the flaws in plaintiffs’ arguments by showing that the preferred candidates actually won all elections in which the plaintiffs’ were arguing Voting Rights Act violations, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s decision. The Tenth Circuit also found no one-person-one-vote violation, finding the population variance well within acceptable limits.

The Tenth Circuit next evaluated the sanctions award and determined that although the district court had discretion to issue sanctions under § 1927, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to base the sanction award on the day plaintiffs received the report from the mayor’s expert. The Tenth Circuit found that it would be unreasonable to expect the plaintiffs to withdraw their complaint on the day that the report was exchanged, since they would likely need time to review it and determine whether it had merit. Because of this, the Tenth Circuit reversed the sanction award. The Tenth Circuit noted that, on remand, the district court was free to revisit fees on remand.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court. Judge Phillips wrote a thoughtful dissent; he would not have allowed a sanction award at all because of the potentially chilling effect on legitimate voter discrimination claims.

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