LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Legal Newsline) – On June 8, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed a $10,000 fine assessed to the city of Little Rock by a circuit judge.
The city appealed, claiming that the fine was a gross abuse of discretion. Justices Robin F. Wynne, Dan Kemp and Karen Baker concurred, with Justice Josephine Linker Hart dissenting. The case was affirmed and dismissed in part.
In May 2014, former officer Tiffany Malone filed a suit against Little Rock Police Department officials and the city alleging gender discrimination and retaliation. Over the next two years, Little Rock requested several continuances for various reasons, one being one of its city attorneys was undergoing cancer treatment.
On April 25, 2016, the circuit court sanctioned a $10,000 fine against the city to be paid within 10 days, citing that the city had willfully refused to comply with the scheduling order, and that the willful actions of the city in failing to comply with the scheduling order and filing repeated motions for a continuance was a violation of Rule 11 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides Arkansas courts with the authority to impose sanctions on attorneys who fail to make a reasonable inquiry into the facts or law, or who interpose a pleading, motion, or other paper for an improper purpose.
Little Rock filed a motion to set aside the sanction, arguing that the circuit court had failed to comply with the requirements of Rule 11, and filed a motion to stay the sanction pending consideration of the motion to set aside in May 2016.
The circuit court denied both motions and issued an order requiring the Little Rock City manager to appear and show cause why the city should not be held in contempt for failure to pay the penalty within 10 days. On May 12, 2016, the city filed a notice of payment of fine and motion to cancel the show-cause hearing as moot, to which it attached a receipt reflecting that it had made the payment.
The Supreme Court majority dismissed the appeal from April 25 as moot. Wynne said the payment made by the city was intended as a resolution of the matter, as it voluntarily paid the penalty to avoid being found in contempt.
Hart, in her dissenting opinion, contended that the appeal from the April 25 order is not moot because the circuit court lacked the authority to impose the Rule 11 sanction, and the dissent stated that the majority failed to acknowledge that the so-called “voluntary” payment was made by the city of Little Rock only after the circuit court denied its motion to reconsider and that there is no legal basis for a contempt sanction on the Little Rock City Attorney.
He signed none of the motions for continuance that so irrationally offended the circuit judge, and simply made a timely and well-supported motion to reconsider imposing the sanction, Hart wrote.
The Supreme Court affirmed the May 20, 2016, order from the circuit court finding the city in contempt for failing to timely pay the Rule 11 penalty. Wynne and the majority stated that because the city failed to abide by the April 25 order of the circuit court, they cannot review that order. Because Little Rock paid the penalty, the finding of contempt was not clearly against the preponderance of the evidence.
Hart said she did not see how any of the case could be affirmed because the conduct by Little Rock’s attorney did not in any way constitute a violation of Rule 11, and the circuit court was wholly without subject-matter jurisdiction to impose the sanction.
Hart said that the majority conceded that the circuit judge did not have the authority under Rule 11 to sanction the behavior on the part of the deputy Little Rock attorney, but excused it because the circuit judge was only acting in “excess” of his jurisdiction.
Hart likened the circuit court judge’s actions to the logic of the Mad Hatter and March Hare’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland," noting the similarity in relinquishment of logic and rhetoric of excess. Hart stated everything the circuit judge did was in excess of his jurisdiction.