Daily Decisions: Meritless Defamation Claim Results in Sanctions

Dee Ann Stiles used to be the Secretary for the Shore Woods Homeowners’ Association (“Association”). Gerald Kearney was a former member of the Association’s Executive Board (prior to Stiles’s tenure) and apparently he didn’t think Stiles was doing a very good job. Kearney wrote some “hostile” emails to the Board claiming that there were “inherent problems” with Stiles’s work on the Board and specifically stating that her meeting minutes were “written from the point of view of someone with an axe to grind” and telling Stiles, “Do your job even-handedly or step down.”

So of course, Stiles sued for defamation! Unfortunately (for her) the trial court concluded that she failed to offer any “credible or cognizable evidence” regarding (1) the falsity of Kearney’s statements, (2) whether the statements were privileged, or (3) her claimed damages. That’s no good. The court “concluded that the complaint was not well-grounded in fact or law and that Young [Stiles’s attorney] failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry before filing the complaint.” Accordingly, the trial court awarded sanctions against Stiles and Young under CR 11 and RCW 4.84.185.

Stiles appealed. The Court of Appeals, in Dee Ann Stiles v. Gerald Kearney (Division 2, February 29, 2012) (published May 22, 2012), affirmed the trial court in full. The Court of Appeals’ decision was initially unpublished, which likely explains why the Court’s analysis of the sanction issue is very superficial. Basically, the Court sets out the general legal standards, states that the trial court properly recognized those standards, and that the decision to impose sanctions based on a “well-written six-page memorandum opinion” was not an abuse of discretion. Continue reading

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SCOW: Seriously People, You Need Adequate Findings to Support Severe Discovery Sanctions

Today in Teter v. Deck (Wash., April 5, 2012), the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed the requirement that to impose “the most severe discovery sanctions” a Court must make findings on the record — either orally or in writing — that:

(1) the discovery violation was willful or deliberate, (2) the violation substantially prejudiced the opponent’s ability to prepare for trial, and (3) the court explicitly considered less severe sanctions.

The exclusion of witness testimony is one of “the most severe discovery sanctions,” so it must be supported by such findings.

Here, the initially assigned judge was Judge Washington, who excluded the plaintiffs’ expert witness as a discovery violation. Later, the case was assigned to then-Judge (now Justice) Gonzalez, who presided over the trial.  Following a defense verdict, Judge Gonzalez granted plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial under CR 59 based on Judge Washington’s “error of law.”  Because Judge Washington did not make the necessary findings on the record, Judge Gonzalez’s granting of the CR 59 motion was not an abuse of discretion.***

In granting the new trial, Judge Gonzalez did a bit of belt-and-suspender-ing by supporting the grant with an additional basis: the misconduct of defense counsel at trial.  In approving of this additional basis, the Court explained that “a trial court may grant a new trial where misconduct of the prevailing party materially affects the substantial rights of the losing party.”  The determination of whether a party’s conduct meets this standard is reviewed for abuse of discretion.  The Supreme Court disapprovingly noted that the “Court of Appeals [which reversed Judge Gonzalez] appears to have reviewed Judge Gonzalez’s ruling as an issue of law.”  So that’s no good.

Here, defense counsel repeatedly attempted to show jurors exhibits that were not evidence and to question witnesses on subjects the Court had previously ruled to be inadmissible.  That’s a no-no.  Judge Gonzalez repeatedly admonished defense counsel on the record, but the conduct persisted.

Moreover, the plaintiffs did not waive the claim for a new trial my not moving for a mistrial.  The Supreme Court explained:  A new trial is appropriate “where (1) the conduct complained of is misconduct, (2) the misconduct is prejudicial, (3) the moving party objected to the misconduct at trial, and (4) the misconduct was not cured by the court’s instructions.”

The Court’s opinion closes with this stern reminder:

We have quite clearly held that explicit findings regarding the Burnet factors must be made on the record when a court imposes the most severe discovery sanctions, like excluding a witness.

Okay then.  Let’s all try to heed this instruction in the future!

***The Court actually applied a two-prong standard of review.  Because Judge Gonzalez concluded that Judge Washington’s exclusion order was an error of law, that conclusion was reviewed de novo.  Once the Court agreed with Judge Gonzalez on the error of law, it then reviewed his remedial decision — the granting of the new trial — for abuse of discretion.