U.S. Court of Appeals Upholds Trial Court’s Sanctions Against Attorney for Frivolous Arguments Seeking to Avoid Arbitration Agreement

By Mark Kantor

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Appeal of Jana Yocum Rine in Hunt v. Moore Brothers, No. 16-2055 (June 27, 2017), recently upheld sanctions imposed by the trial court against an attorney personally for her frivolous arguments seeking to avoid an arbitration agreement in a contract between an independent trucker and a trucking company.  The appellate opinion is available at http://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca7/16-2055/16-2055-2017-06-29.pdf?ts=1498759242.

Very briefly, the trial court had required Ms. Rine, counsel for Mr. Hunt, to pay $7,500 in legal fees and expenses incurred by Moore Brothers defending against frivolous claims in a complaint filed by Ms. Rine in District Court and frivolous arguments that the arbitration agreement in the contract between Hunt and Moore Brothers was unenforceable, including a claim that the trucking company was holding Hunt “in peonage.”

James Hunt worked as a truck driver in Nebraska. On July 1, 2010, he signed an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement with Moore Brothers, a small company located in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Three years later, Hunt and Moore renewed the Agreement.  Before the second term expired, however, relations between the parties soured.  Hunt hired Attorney Jana Yocum Rine to sue Moore on his behalf.  She did so in federal court, raising a wide variety of claims, but paying little heed to the fact that the Agreements contained arbitration clauses.  Rine resisted arbitration, primarily on the theory that the clause was unenforceable as a matter of Nebraska law.  Tired of what it regarded as a flood of frivolous arguments and motions, the district court granted Moore’s motion for sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 and ordered Rine to pay Moore about $7,500.  The court later dismissed the entire action without prejudice.

****

The relevant part of the arbitration clauses in the Agreements reads as follows:

This Agreement and any properly adopted Addendum shall constitute the entire Agreement and understanding between us and it shall be interpreted under the laws of the State of Nebraska. … To the extent any disputes arise under this Agreement or its interpretation, we both agree to submit such disputes to final and binding arbitration before any arbitrator mutually agreed upon by both parties.

When Rine decided to take formal action on Hunt’s part, she ignored that language and filed a multi‐count complaint in federal court.  The complaint was notable only for its breadth: it accused Moore of holding Hunt in peonage in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1581 (a criminal statute), and of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1962; the federal antitrust laws, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1, 4, 14; the Illinois Employee Classification Act, 820 ILCS 185/1 et seq.; and for good measure, the Illinois tort of false representation.

The Court of Appeals, and the District Court before then, concluded that Rine had blown up a simple commercial dispute beyond all rational proportion; “This was a simple commercial dispute between Hunt and Moore, but one would never know that from reading Rine’s complaint.  She blew it up beyond all rational proportion.”

Writing for a unanimous appellate panel, Chief Justice Wood upheld the trial court’s imposition of sanctions against Rine personally as “within the district court’s broad discretion, in light of all the circumstances of this case….”

We have no need to consider whether the sanctions imposed by the district court were also justified under the court’s inherent power.  See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 45–46 (1991).  Nor are we saying that the district court would have erred if it had denied Moore’s sanctions motion.  We hold only that it lay within the district court’s broad discretion, in light of all the circumstances of this case, to impose a calibrated sanction on Rine for her conduct of the litigation, culminating in the objectively baseless motion she filed in opposition to arbitration.  We therefore AFFIRM the district court’s order imposing sanctions.

The judicial decisions in Hunt v. Moore Brothers are yet another illustration of the increasing peril to counsel personally in US Federal courts if the attorney pursues a frivolous “take no prisoners” approach seeking to avoid arbitration.

 

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s