Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Opinion Digests / Va. Cir.: Attorney, but not client, evades sanctions for frivolous suit

Va. Cir.: Attorney, but not client, evades sanctions for frivolous suit

A plaintiff suing for $4.75 million on a groundless defamation claim is liable for a proportion of the defendant’s litigation fees and costs. The plaintiff’s attorney was not subject to sanctions, as she relied on her client’s information until she had reason not to do so.


Plaintiff Jennifer Ankrum sued Defendant Martha Miller for defamation, after Miller allegedly told a law enforcement officer that Ankrum “may be using drugs.” Ankrum’s complaint asserted that this statement caused the state to remove her children from her custodial care.

Ankrum’s attorney, Vicki Francois, later sought to withdraw from representation, and Miller moved for sanctions against both Ankrum and Francois. The court granted Francois leave to withdraw.


The court finds that Ankrum was not fully truthful in her testimony before this court as to her drug use and may have also been untruthful to Francois. Although Francois perhaps could have done more to investigate whether Ankrum was, in fact, using drugs before filing the complaint, the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion that Francois necessarily knew Ankrum’s allegations were not well grounded in fact. Francois relied on information from Ankrum, did not initially find a reason to disbelieve her, and knew of two negative drug tests Ankrum had taken.

Applying caution in considering sanctions that would stifle attorneys from advancing novel legal theories, the court grants Francois’s motion to strike Miller’s request for sanctions against her.

However, there is ample evidence that Ankrum had the requisite knowledge that her pleadings were not well grounded in fact, supporting the conclusion that she filed her complaint in order to vex Miller. Further, Ankrum’s plea for $4.75 million in damages lends credence to Ankrum’s vexatious motive. The court will grant Miller’s motion for sanctions against Ankrum.


Miller’s attorneys’ fees totaled $20,000. However, the case was not brought to full conclusion. The court will assess sanctions in the amount of $9,000 for Miller’s attorneys’ fees and $1,474 in litigation costs, with post-judgment interest.

Ankrum v. Miller, Case No. CL16-695, Feb. 23, 2018. Montgomery Cir. Ct. (Harrell). VLW No. 018-8-043, 6 pp.

VLW 018-8-043