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Hannah v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 18, 2017

KIM HANNAH and MICHAEL BARHAM Plaintiffs,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC. and WAL-MART STORES EAST, L.P., Defendants.

          ORDER REGARDING SANCTIONS

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On August 12, 2016, this Court issued an Order to Show Cause as to why Plaintiffs' counsel, Kristan Peters-Hamlin, should not be sanctioned for causing undue delay in the jury trials of this matter. See Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 316. The Court also issued a supplemental Order to Show Cause on May 26, 2017, noting additional concerns regarding Ms. Peters-Hamlin's conduct. See Supp. Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 580. The Court then held an Order to Show Cause Hearing on August 31, 2017, at 11:00 a.m.

         During the hearing, the Court heard evidence and argument regarding whether to impose sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. Specifically, the Court considered whether sanctions were appropriate with respect to the following conduct by Ms. Peters-Hamlin: (1) Ms. Peters-Hamlin's failure to properly communicate with the Court regarding trial scheduling in this matter; (2) Ms. Peters-Hamlin's decision to file a premature appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (“Second Circuit”); (3) Ms. Peters-Hamlin's undisclosed disbarment from the United States Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”); and (4) Ms. Peters-Hamlin's repeated disregard of the Court's instructions during the jury trial of Kim Hannah's claims.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court declines to order sanctions with respect to Ms. Peters-Hamlin's communications regarding scheduling, her recent disbarment, and her conduct during the jury trial of Ms. Hannah's claims. The Court does order sanctions in the amount of $1, 000, however, as to Ms. Hannah's filing of a premature appeal with the Second Circuit.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of employment discrimination claims brought by Kim Hannah and Michael Barham (together “Plaintiffs”)[1] against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. (together “Walmart” or “Defendants”). Two separate jury trials were held as to Mr. Barham's claims and Ms. Hannah's claims. See Minute Entries, ECF Nos. 427, 552. At the conclusion of the jury trial as to Mr. Barham's retaliation and discrimination claims under Title VII, the jury entered a substantial verdict against Walmart for retaliation in violation of Title VII. Jury Verdict, ECF No. 430. At the conclusion of the jury trial as to Ms. Hannah's Title VII retaliation claim, the Court granted Walmart's Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law and dismissed Ms. Hannah's claim. Minute Entry, ECF No. 552.

         During the course of this litigation, the Court entered two separate orders to show cause in connection with the conduct of Plaintiffs' counsel, Kristan Peters-Hamlin. Orders to Show Cause, ECF Nos. 316, 580. Four specific issues were the subject of the Court's concern. Id. First, as outlined in the Court's initial Order to Show Cause, Ms. Peters-Hamlin failed to properly notify the Court of a scheduling conflict between the jury trial in this matter, which was initially scheduled for September 6, 2016, and an unrelated state court trial, which was scheduled after the scheduling order had already been entered as to this trial. Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 316.

         Second, Ms. Peters-Hamlin filed a premature appeal to the Second Circuit following the Court's partial grant of summary judgment, despite the absence of any final judgment in this case at the time. See Supp. Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 508. Defendants filed both motion to dismiss and a motion for sanctions in the Second Circuit, and after the parties briefed their respective arguments, the Second Circuit dismissed the appeal and specified that this Court could consider Defendants' motion for sanctions in connection with the outstanding sanctions issues already before the Court. See Mandate Dismissing Appeal, ECF No. 357.

         Third, Ms. Peters-Hamlin did not specifically notify the Court regarding reciprocal discipline imposed against her in connection with an earlier disciplinary proceeding. See Supp. Order to Show Cause at 2-3, ECF No. 508. During the August 31st hearing, Ms. Peters-Hamlin clarified that all proper notifications had since been filed in connection with this incident.

         Finally, at several points throughout the jury trial of Ms. Hannah's claims, Ms. Peters-Hamlin disregarded the Court's instructions regarding permissible lines of questioning and other evidentiary issues. Id. The Court confronted Ms. Peters-Hamlin about these incidents during the course of trial and informed Ms. Peters-Hamlin that sanctions may be necessary based on her repeated disregard for the Court's instructions at trial.

         On August 31, 2017, the Court held a show cause hearing to determine whether to impose sanctions as to each of these issues. Minute Entry, ECF No. 624. Ms. Peters-Hamlin submitted voluminous filings in advance of that hearing, including several briefs and numerous letters of support from various individuals. See Show Cause Filings, ECF Nos. 611-617, 620-622.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         28 U.S.C. § 1927 provides that “[a]ny attorney . . . who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys' fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.” Under this statute, the imposition of sanctions is warranted where “there is a clear showing of bad faith on the part of an attorney.” Shafii v. British Airways, PLC, 83 F.3d 566, 571 (2d Cir. 1996).

         “As with sanctions imposed pursuant to a court's inherent power, in the § 1927 context, bad faith may be inferred ‘only if actions are so completely without merit as to require the conclusion that they must have been undertaken for some improper purpose such as delay.'” Schlaifer Nance & Co. v. Estate of Warhol, 194 F.3d 323, 336 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Shafii, 83 F.3d at 571) (internal quotation marks omitted). “In addition to attorney's fees and costs, other inherent power sanctions available to courts include fines, contempt citations, disqualifications or suspensions of counsel, and drawing adverse evidentiary inferences or precluding the admission of evidence. . . . A finding of bad faith is ordinarily a prerequisite to the issuance of ...


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