Court of Appeals Finds that Trial Judge Would Have Acted Within Her Discretion Had She Dismissed Plaintiff’s Lawsuit as Sanction for His “Contemptuous Behavior”

On April 11, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Pietrangelo v. Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, LLP, No. 11-CV-1067, slip op. (D.C. Apr. 11, 2013), a case in which the plaintiff, an individual, alleged a litany of claims against the defendant, a law firm that had previously represented him in a civil matter. Id. at 3-4, 7. During the proceedings below, which included a jury trial, all of the plaintiff’s claims were decided in the defendant’s favor. Id. at 8. The plaintiff appealed. Id. Finding no error, the Court of Appeals affirmed in all respects. Id. at 3, 45-46. This case note discusses one issue that the Court of Appeals went out of its way to address notwithstanding that it resolved the appeal on other grounds that are not discussed here; specifically, this case note discusses whether the trial judge would have acted within her discretion had she decided to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit, pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 41(b), as a sanction for the plaintiff’s “contemptuous behavior.” Id. at 3, 10-15, 45-46.

The Court of Appeals began its discussion of this issue by placing the plaintiff’s “contemptuous behavior” in context. Id. at 10. It stated that the plaintiff “availed himself of the District of Columbia courts to obtain relief for alleged wrongs” and, “[i]n pursuit of those claims, . . . engaged in litigation that consumed substantial resources in the trial court, resulting in a docket sheet with over 300 entries in two years.” Id. It further stated that “[t]he trial court made painstaking efforts to provide a fair trial, investing substantial court and judicial resources,” but, “after demanding and receiving substantial time and attention from the trial court, [his] attitude in return was one of flagrant contempt, whereby he deliberately disregarded orders of the trial court and exhibited an attitude of disrespect to the trial judge and the administration of justice.” Id. It found his behavior “particularly troubling because [the plaintiff] is himself an attorney.” Id.

The Court of Appeals described in detail the plaintiff’s “contemptuous behavior.” Id. at 10-13. It stated that the plaintiff “testified falsely, denying authorship of an email originating from his email account to [the defendant].” Id. at 10. It further stated that when the defendant confronted the plaintiff with a Bar Counsel complaint about the defendant, “to which [the plaintiff] had attached the very same email,” he “refused to answer any questions, claiming that his complaint to Bar Counsel . . . was confidential.” Id. at 11. The plaintiff responded the same when the defendant “attempted to confront [him] with other emails that [he] had also attached to his bar complaint.” Id. The trial court expressly ruled that the complaint was admissible in evidence and ordered the plaintiff to respond to questions about the emails attached to it. Id. at 11-12. Nonetheless, the plaintiff continued to refuse to answer questions about the emails. Id. at 12. The trial judge then explained to the plaintiff “the seriousness of his refusal to comply with the court’s orders,” including the possibility that she could dismiss his lawsuit as a sanction. Id. at 12-13. After receiving this warning, the plaintiff “refused to answer no fewer than twenty-one questions, all of which the trial court ordered him to answer.” Id. at 13.

Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals concluded that it would have been proper for the trial judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit, pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 41(b), as a sanction for the plaintiff’s “contemptuous behavior.” Id. at 10-15. It stated that “[w]here a party ‘engages in conduct utterly inconsistent with the orderly administration of justice,’ we have recognized that dismissal is an appropriate sanction.” Id. at 14 (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted; quoting Synanon Found. Inc. v. Bernstein, 503 A.2d 1254, 1264 (D.C. 1986)). It further stated that, “while ‘dismissal is an extreme sanction which should be granted only sparingly or in extraordinary circumstances,’ the trial court has authority to dismiss an action when a plaintiff fails to comply with an order of the court.” Id. (brackets and internal citation omitted; quoting District of Columbia v. Serafin, 617 A.2d 516, 519 (D.C. 1992)). The Court of Appeals concluded that “‘[t]he face-to-face refusal to comply with the court’s order itself constituted an affront to the court, and when that kind of refusal disrupts and frustrates an ongoing proceeding, as it did here, the contempt power is and must be available to vindicate the authority of the court as well as to provide the recalcitrant witness with some incentive to testify.'” Id. at 15 (brackets omitted; quoting United States v. Wilson, 421 U.S. 309, 316 (1975)). The Court of Appeals further concluded that, “[i]n this case, although the trial judge declined to dismiss the action out of an abundance of caution,” and instead sanctioned the plaintiff by instructing the jury that “it could conclude that any testimony [the plaintiff] would have given about his bar complaint would have been unfavorable to his case,” “she would have acted well within her discretion to” dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Id. at 13, 15. The Court of Appeals reiterated that “there is no bar to imposing the ultimate sanction of dismissal when the court is faced with a long and continuing disobedience of its orders,” and, “[i]ndeed, where the record reflects a deliberate and contumacious disregard of the court’s authority, as it does in this case, we will not hesitate in affirming the trial court’s discretionary decision to dismiss as a sanction.” Id. at 45-46.