"Litigants Flout Court Rules at Their Peril"

If a district court imposes sanctions, don't look to the Third Circuit for relief.

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Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit offered a cautionary warning to litigants: Flout court rules at your peril. In United States v. Brace, the Third Circuit refused to overturn a district court order striking the defendant's brief in a challenge to a Clean Water Act prosecution.

Judge Bibas' opinion for the court begins:

Litigants flout court rules at their peril. District courts have broad discretion to punish them by striking their briefs if needed. We will not upset these sanctions lightly.

The U.S. Government sued Robert Brace and his farm for violating the Clean Water Act. Brace's then-lawyer persistently violated court rules—even after the court repeatedly ordered Brace to show cause, warned him, and threatened sanctions. After prolonged discovery, the Government moved for summary judgment. But Brace's lawyer responded to the Government's motion late. When the court gave him another chance, he again violated the rules. At last, the court struck Brace's brief, treated the motion as unopposed, and granted summary judgment for the Government. Because that severe sanction was not an abuse of discretion, we will affirm.

Among the defendant's attorney's offenses, the court lists the following:

  1. Perfunctory Pleading
  2. Discovery Recalcitrance
  3. Pattern of Extending and Missing Deadlines
  4. Overlength briefs smuggling in extra-record materials.

Judge Bibas' brief opinion both addresses the district court's order striking the defendant's brief opposing summary judgment, as well as the jurisdictional issues that arise from attempting an interlocutory appeal of such an order.

The opinion concludes with a warning:

District courts have broad discretion to impose proportional sanctions. When they explain how they weigh the Poulis factors, we can confirm the reasonableness of those sanctions. Though striking Brace's summary-judgment brief was harsh, it was a reasonable response to his former counsel's persistent,
extreme misconduct. We will affirm.