Underlying copyright dispute
Facts: The plaintiffs, Stephanie Hays and Gail MacDonald, teach business courses at a public high school in Des Plaines, Illinois. In 1982 or 1983 they prepared a manual for their students on how to operate the school’s DEC word processors, and distributed copies to students and to other faculty members. In 1984 the school district, having bought word processors from Sony Corporation of America, gave Sony the plaintiffs’ manual and asked Sony to modify it so that it could be used with Sony’s word processors. Sony proceeded to do so, resulting in a manual very similar to — in many places a verbatim copy of — the plaintiff’s manual. In February 1985 the plaintiffs, presumably spurred by knowledge of Sony’s manual, registered their own manual with the Copyright Office, and in July they filed this lawsuit in federal district court. Sony filed several motions for sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking reimbursement of some $47,000 in attorney’s fees and related expenses, and the district judge had heard, but not decided, the motions several days before he dismissed the action. Several months later, on February 18, 1987, the judge awarded Sony $14,895.46 in sanctions against the plaintiffs’ counsel, Emmanuel F. Guyon, but not against the plaintiffs. Guyon appealed.
Issue: Is an award of sanctions permissible, under FRCP Rule 11, against an attorney for filing a complaint that is not frivolous but was ineffectively pursued?
Ruling: Yes. In the Rule 11 setting the victims are the lawyer’s adversary, other litigants in the court’s queue, and the court itself. By asserting claims without first inquiring whether they have a plausible grounding in law and fact, a lawyer can impose on an adversary and on the judicial system substantial costs that would have been — and should have been — avoided by a reasonable prepleading inquiry.
Lesson: The Rule 11 standard, like the negligence standard in tort law, is an objective standard. Therefore, one must know the law before bringing claims, even if one is not an expert in the field. Otherwise, a lawyer may get sanctioned.