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FEMA lawyer wrongfully sanctioned under Rule 11

A federal district court should not have sanctioned a lawyer under Rule 11 for comments she made during a hearing because the rule applies to oral statements only in very limited circumstances, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

In an April 3 per curiam opinion, a 4th Circuit panel reversed a South Carolina federal district court’s sanctions against Margaret Bees, who was a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the sanctions were imposed.

Rule 11 requires attorneys who present a pleading, motion or other writing to a court to certify that they have evidence to support the facts they state.

U.S. District Judge Margaret B. Seymour cited two reasons for imposing the sua sponte sanctions: inaccuracies in two FEMA documents and a misrepresentation in Bees’ statement at a hearing about the administrative comment period.

All three errors occurred in connection with Columbia Venture, LLC, et al. v. FEMA (VLW 009-2-071) a dispute over FEMA’s redrawing of flood maps in Richland County, S.C. The court’s opinion reversing the sanctions order is In re Bees (VLW 009-2-074).
The sanctions order also required the court clerk to withdraw Bees’ appearance in the case and ordered Bees to attach copies of the order to future filings with the court, send a copy of the sanctions order to the District of Columbia Bar’s lawyer discipline board, and complete CLE ethics courses that Bees already had voluntarily undertaken. The judge also stated she would summarily deny any future applications Bees filed with the district court.

But the 4th Circuit reversed the entry of sanctions against Bees for her oral statement, saying that Rule 11 “severely limits a court’s ability to sanction counsel for oral statements.”

And it called the inaccuracies in the FEMA documents “an inadvertent mistake” that didn’t justify the punishment. Courts should take extra care when imposing sua sponte sanctions under Rule 11, reserving them instead for “situations that are akin to contempt of court,” the panel said.

The panel said in a footnote that Bees was sanctioned in part for work that a number of government attorneys had submitted to the court. “The record does not reveal why Bees bore the brunt of the sanctions,” it said.

Mark Earl Nagle, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented Bees, said papers filed in Columbia Venture included the names of U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys as well as their signatures.

“And Judge Shedd asked me during the 4th Circuit oral argument, ‘Were any of those other attorneys sanctioned?’ And the answer was no,” he said. Nagle said he had not previously seen such sanctions imposed against an attorney.

“The basis on which the district court acted to impose the sanctions was just not legally sufficient as a matter of law,” he said.

“Rule 11 applies to written submissions, written filings, briefs, motions and the like, not oral statements,” he said. “Oral statements can be the subject of sanctions, but on the record here, the Court of Appeals agreed with us that whatever mistakes Ms. Bees made were not in the nature of contempt.”

A lawyer for Columbia Venture declined to comment.

Fred Horlbeck is a senior staff writer for North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, a Dolan Media publication.

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