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Seventh Circuit Threatens Attorney Sanctions for Frivolous Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

As observers of the legal world, we implore you: Don't irritate the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or you could be slapped with attorney sanctions and a scathing opinion that forever links your name with the term "bungling attorney" on the Internet.

Cathleen Sambrano filed a discrimination charge against her employer, the U.S. Navy, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Because Sambrano was employed by a federal agency, EEOC had authority to resolve the grievance rather than simply mediate. The EEOC found that Sambrano's claim was unsupported.

Federal employees are entitled to a de novo decision by a federal court, so Sambrano's attorney, A. Jun Joaquin, Jr., filed a complaint repeating the administrative allegations. Joaquin failed to conduct discovery, but filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that discovery was unnecessary because the proceeding was an "appeal" from the EEOC's decision.

Judge Frank Easterbrook noted that Joaquin's proposition was wrong because a suit is not an appeal. That wasn't Team Sambrano's only mistake.

Joaquin's motion for judgment on the pleadings asserted that the court should rule in Sambrano's favor because she was too ill to participate in discovery. The district judge denied the motion.

The district judge dismissed Sambrano's case for want of prosecution under Local Rule 41.1 after more than a year of inaction. Joaquin responded with an "Ex Parte Motion to Vacate Dismissal." When the motion was rejected, he filed an appeal in the Seventh Circuit, arguing in an "almost unintelligible" brief that Local Rule 41.1 violates the Fifth Amendment due process clause.

After listing Joaquin's procedural sins, the court ordered Joaquin to show cause why he should not be fined for "filing a frivolous appeal and violating Circuit Rule 30, and why he should not be censured, suspended, or disbarred on account of his apparent inability to practice competently and diligently."

We would suggest that the acerbic-tongued Judge Easterbrook is like the Simon Cowell of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but he is not the only member of that bench known for calling out attorneys; in September, Judge Diane Sykes wrote a quantified analysis of another attorney's "staggering and incomprehensible" brief before ordering the attorney to show cause why he should not be disciplined.

Mistakes happen, even among conscientious attorneys. Here are three tips to help you save your client's case - and yourself - from judicial embarrassment.

  1. If you discover a pleading deficiency that could result in a frivolous appeal determination, seek leave to amend as soon as possible.
  2. If your health interferes with your ability to competently represent clients, withdraw from a case before you incur attorney sanctions.
  3. If a legal strategy might be "too clever," use a colleague as a sounding board for your idea before trying it out in the Seventh Circuit.

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