This case is a welcome reminder of how an attorney’s advice may sometimes lead to more harm than good. Brown brought suit against his former employer, Skagit, under Title VII claiming racial harassment and constructive discharge. In a deposition, Brown testified that his sole reason for quitting his job at Skagit was due to racial harassment. However, in a deposition four months earlier in an unrelated personal injury case, Brown testified that he left Skagit solely because of debilitating back pain suffered during a car accident. Skagit sought dismissal of Brown’s claims based on his conflicting testimony, which the district court allowed and dismissed with prejudice. The court also went one step further finding Brown committed perjury. Brown’s appeal is based on a matter of fairness, arguing that a less severe sanction is in order and that he was entitled to explain the discrepancy between the testimonies.
To emphasize the facts, in the first case, based on racial harassment and constructive discharge under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e, Brown testified as to how he felt endangered by his co-workers’ threatening behavior, which involved dropping heavy plates and pipes near him. He was also distraught by his co-workers flinging derogatory remarks at him on a daily basis. He felt compelled to quit his job, as his supervisors purportedly ignored this behavior. When asked why he quit his job, he testified that the only reason he quit was because of the racial harassment. He reiterated that there were no other reasons for his quitting.
In a completely unrelated deposition for a personal injury claim, Brown testified that the exclusive reason he left Skagit was due to his debilitating back pain, which prevented him from performing his job as a welder. He again emphasized and confirmed that this was his only reason for leaving his job.
His two testimonies are obviously in direct conflict. Skagit argued that Brown’s “blatant misconduct” entitled them to a dismissal of all charges. The court agreed and dismissed all counts with prejudice. Brown accordingly argued that the court’s decision was too harsh, as he was not offered an opportunity to explain the inconsistency. The court explained that the punishment fit the crime as a means of deterrence, since not every perjurer will be caught and “the proper administration of justice depends on people testifying truthfully under oath.”
Brown argued that his lies were not intentional, as his attorney in his personal injury case advised him not to mention his racial harassment case, which he naively and simply followed. Accordingly, the court held a hearing for Brown’s objections, but neither Brown nor his counsel appeared. His case was dismissed on final judgment and his attorney was sanctioned.
Two important issues were raised on appeal, namely, whether it was an abuse of discretion for the district court (1) to dismiss both of Brown’s claims; and (2) to deny an evidentiary hearing on Brown’s contradictory testimony.
Issue 1: Dismissal with prejudice has been described as “an extreme sanction that deprives a litigant of the opportunity to pursue his claim.” When a court’s sanction is severe, the review on appeal is “more rigorous” and “particularly scrupulous.” A dismissal with prejudice is only affirmed if two requirements are met, including: (1) there is “a clear record of delay or contumacious conduct by the plaintiff”; and (2) lesser sanctions would not serve the best interests of justice
We will start with the first requirement. In order to satisfy the standard, the consideration of less extreme punishments should be found in the record. The court found that the sanction was appropriate and that Brown’s conduct was contumacious, defined as “the stubborn resistance to authority,” since he took his oath to tell the truth lightly and committed perjury.
We will now look to the second requirement. The court looked to whether the district court used “the least onerous sanction” to “address the offensive conduct,” and showed that the sanction was not overly harsh and equated to the conduct at hand. The court did consider several lesser sanctions, but rightfully concluded that they were not appropriate. A monetary sanction was not helpful, since Brown could not afford to pay his attorney’s fees and proceeded in forma pauperis. Dismissing only one claim would not cause Brown to suffer a penalty for his perjury. Hence, dismissal of the entire complaint was justified, as it was commensurate with Brown’s conduct. The court stated “Brown plainly committed perjury, a serious offense that constitutes a severe affront to the courts and thwarts the administration of justice.”
Issue 2: The court next considered whether it was an abuse of discretion to deny an evidentiary hearing for Brown to explain his conflicting testimony. Brown wanted to show that the discrepancy was based on his reliance on his attorney’s wrongful advice. However, he made no pressing argument to explain why he and his attorney failed to appear at the hearing. Therefore, his argument lacked merit.
Ultimately, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision and both of Brown’s claims were tossed out with prejudice. This effort is usually based in those cases where no doubt remains as to the premises for suit, especially in the event like this where conflicting explanations lead to doubt in one individual’s validity. To prevent conflict in rationale, an attorney should be well versed in the law and have a high moral fortitude.
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