“Inherent Power” Sanction Against Second Failed TRO Motion Upheld by Split Eighth Circuit Panel

An internecine battle for control of the Eagle Forum – Schlafly  v.  Eagle Forum, No.  19-2174 (8th Cir. July 30, 2020) – leads to a $9,851.25 attorney’s fees sanction under the district court’s “inherent power,” an award affirmed by a divided Eighth Circuit panel.   

Plaintiff Andrew L. Schlafly, son of Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schafly, sued the organization and the board of directors to fend off an effort to remove himself and others from the organization’s leadership. He alleged violations of the organization’s by-laws as well as breach of fiduciary duty. The defendants removed the case from state to federal court in St. Louis, Missouri.

In January 2017, plaintiff moved for a TRO to block a meeting of the board, which was eventually denied by the court as moot. Four days after that denial, plaintiff filed a second motion for TRO to enjoin another meeting of the board scheduled four days thereafter. The district court denied the second TRO, and this time added sanctions against the plaintiff under its inherent power, finding that the second motion for TRO simply “appeared to the Court to be a blatant effort to tie up the resources of Defendant Eagle Forum.” Ultimately, in 2019, the district court dismissed the suit on the merits.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit panel affirms the merits dismissal, though it splits on the appropriateness of the attorney’s fees sanction. The germinal case authorizing sanctions under the court’s own authority, Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32 (1991), stressed that the “court may safely rely on its inherent power” if in its “informed discretion” the express sanctions rules of the Federal Rules of Evidence (particularly Rule 11) “are [not] up to the task.”

The majority holds that Rule 11 would not have fit the accelerated timetable of a TRO hearing.  “First, the offending pleading was an ‘emergency motion’ for TRO to enjoin a meeting scheduled for four days hence, so a Rule 11 motion with the 21-day safe harbor period required by Rule 11(c)(2) was not practical …. Second, the district court does not have authority under Rule 11 to award attorney’s fees on its own motion.” But the dissent (by Judge Stras) demurs on this point. “Because Rule 11 may well have been ‘up to the task,’ Chambers, 501 U.S. at 50, and the district court said nothing to suggest otherwise, I would vacate the award of attorney fees and remand for further consideration.”

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