TN Lawyer Sanctioned for Filing Frivolous Contempt Motion in Neglect Case
Tennessee case summary on Rule 11 sanctions against an attorney.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services commenced this case in Williamson County with a petition to find a child to be dependent and neglected. The nonprofit agency involved in the case had in its possession a document that it believed would prove harmful to the child if disclosed to the parents. Therefore, it resisted a request by the parents to produce the document. The court ordered that it should be given to the court in camera for the court to review.
When a representative of the agency failed to produce the document at a deposition, the attorney filed a motion for civil contempt. The agency filed a motion for the trial court to review it in camera. The trial court held that the agency acted properly, and that only a redacted version should be supplied to the parents’ attorney.
The attorney then filed a motion for criminal contempt, alleging that the agency had improperly e-mailed the non-disclosable information to the child’s teacher. This motion was denied, and the agency then filed a motion for sanctions under Rule 11, arguing that the contempt motion had been frivolous. The court ruled that the motion had been frivolous, and ordered the attorney to attend three hours of continuing legal education in ethics. The court also ordered the attorney to pay over $3000 in attorney fees. The mother and father, represented by the same attorney, then appealed this order to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The court first affirmed the actual contempt rulings before turning to the propriety of the Rule 11 sanctions.
Under Rule 11, an attorney’s signature on a document certifies that the attorney has read it and that it is well grounded and has no improper motive. The test for whether to order sanctions is “objective reasonableness under the circumstances.” On appeal, the order has a presumption of correctness, and will not be reversed absent the evidence preponderating against it.
In this case, the appeals court reviewed the evidence and concluded that the attorney had responded to the agency’s attempts to cooperate with “coercive tactics” and threats that were inappropriate. The motion for contempt had no factual basis, the appeals court concluded, and therefore, it had been proper for the lower court to impose sanctions.
For these reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed all of the lower court’s rulings.
No. M2014-02133-COA-R3-JV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 28, 2016).
See original opinion for exact language. Legal citations omitted.
To learn more, see The Tennessee Divorce Process: How Divorces Work Start to Finish.