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Lawyers and their clients are bound by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 and its state rule counterparts not to pursue frivolous claims. In Trump v. Clinton et al., Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida relied on Rule 11 to impose $937,989.39 in sanctions upon former President Donald Trump and his lead attorney, Alina Habba. In a forty-five-page order, the Court found Mr. Trump and his attorney acted in bad faith in bringing the underlying lawsuit, thereby unlocking the Court’s inherent power to assess attorneys’ fees and costs under Rule 11.
First, the Court found Mr. Trump’s amended complaint to be a “shotgun pleading,” which set forth an excessive number of allegations “replete with conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action,” and “multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which of the defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions.” The Court noted that it had to sift through the unwieldy allegations “only to find they added up to no cognizable claim.”
Second, the Court found the pleadings contained factual allegations that were knowingly false or made with reckless disregard for the truth. Mr. Trump “cherry-picked portions of public reports and filings” that often “contradicted his allegations,” and this “happened too often to be accidental.” For example, Mr. Trump’s allegation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller exonerated him and his campaign after finding no evidence of collusion with Russia was contradicted by the report itself, which explicitly states the investigation “does not exonerate him.”
Third, the Court found the pleadings contained legal theories that were foreclosed by existing precedent and, therefore, were frivolous. The order identifies multiple examples of legal failings, including claims that were barred by statutes of limitations, the assertion of a malicious prosecution claim when Mr. Trump was never prosecuted, the assertion of personal jurisdiction over the defendants because they “knew that Florida is a state in the United States which was an important one,” the assertion of a trade secret claim in the absence of a trade secret, and the assertion of an obstruction of justice claim not tied to any official proceeding as required by statute.
Finally, the Court emphasized the pattern of litigation abuses committed by Mr. Trump and noted that in the case of a “repeat offender,” the Court can also consider the litigant’s conduct outside of the present dispute. The Court identified four other lawsuits initiated by Mr. Trump targeting the media and his political opponents and noted that Mr. Trump appeared undeterred by the potential consequences of frivolous filings. The Court also noted Mr. Trump’s pattern of accusing courts of bias whenever he suffered a judicial loss.
While Judge Middlebrooks considered the conduct in this case to be particularly egregious, the order serves as a warning against even lesser litigation abuses and emphasizes the importance of crafting and advancing legitimate and well-supported factual narratives and legal arguments in pleadings. Counsel should be wary of excessively long and unfocused pleadings, false or misleading factual assertions, and invalid, as opposed to creative or novel, legal theories. Counsel who adopt an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach to pleadings likely face the imposition of sanctions and could subject their clients to sanctions as well.