Sanction Upheld Where Trial Counsel Ignored Efforts of Prevailing Party to Garner Client’s Wages to Satisfy Costs; Absent Withdrawal Approved by Court, Opinion Says, Attorney Must Attend Post-Trial Conference
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed a $805 sanction imposed on a lawyer for not showing up for a post-trial conference or otherwise acting to block the garnishment of his client’s wages, rejecting the defense that there had been no agreement by him to provide representation after judgment was entered.
Losing his appeal from a sanction order by District Court Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California is Hayward attorney Na’il Benjamin of Benjamin Law Group, P.C.
Benjamin took the stance that his duty to the client, Darion Edwards, ended once judgment was entered against him in an employment-discrimination action he pursued against the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District and that the District Court’s jurisdiction had concluded.
“The court’s own docket confirms that this case has been closed and ‘TERMINATED’ since April 9, 2018,” Benjamin asserted in his Dec. 13, 2018 to an order to Chhabria’s show cause re sanctions.
“Mr. Benjamin has not made any post-trial appearances in this case. Mr. Benjamin is not an attorney representing Mr. Edwards in these post trial proceedings. It is unclear why this Court has jurisdiction over Mr. Benjamin to order his appearance in this court, or to issue sanctions against him based on the Court’s conclusions, accusations (both explicit and implicit), opinions, judgments, or beliefs.”
Benjamin went on to say:
“The Court has abused its authority by acting under color of law to force the movement, actions, participation, and the use of compensable attorney time by attorneys not currently involved in any matters in its courtroom. Mr. Benjamin has not appeared in this Court since the final day of trial. Mr. Benjamin has not taken steps that would allow this Court to exercise any authority over him. The Court has no basis to conclude that Mr. Benjamin has any responsibilities relating to this matter following the entry of judgment and this Court closing this case.”
Ninth Circuit’s Opinion
A Ninth Circuit three-judge panel—composed of Circuit Judges Consuelo M. Callahan and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, joined by District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III of the Eastern District of Michigan, sitting by designation—rejected those contentions, as Chhabria had. The panel said, in a memorandum opinion:
“First, the district court had ancillary jurisdiction to enter the sanctions order because Appellees had sought to enforce the judgment against Appellant through a garnishment motion….A garnishment motion is a proceeding under the Court’s ancillary jurisdiction….Thus, Mr. Benjamin’s argument that the district court lacked jurisdiction after it entered judgment is meritless.
“Next. Mr. Benjamin had more than enough notice of the post-judgment proceedings. For one. Mr. Benjamin, as an attorney, knows the district court may exercise ancillary jurisdiction to enforce a judgment, like an adjudication of Appellee’s bill of costs….Mr. Benjamin received the district court’s electronic notifications about the bill of costs and the garnishment motion, but he declined to review them. Local rules mandate that Mr. Benjamin’s duty to his client and the district court does not end until he notifies the court that he withdraws from the case and the court approves the withdrawal….In sum. Mr. Benjamin still owed a duty to his client and had more than enough notice about the post-judgment proceedings, but chose to ignore the proceedings.”
Yesterday marked the second time the Ninth Circuit has reviewed an $805 sanction order based on the lawyer withholding post-judgment services to Edwards in connection with the transit district seeking to collect the costs awarded to it. On Dec. 21, 2018, Chhabria imposed such a sanction on Benjamin, saying:
“Mr. Benjamin’s sole explanation for his conduct is that even though he had agreed to represent Mr. Edwards through the trial, for some appellate purposes and in related state court litigation, he had not agreed to represent Mr. Edwards in any post-judgment proceedings in this case. That explanation is not credible.”
The Ninth Circuit on March 9, 2020, reversed the order, in a memorandum opinion by Callahan, Rawlinson, and Murphy, explaining:
“Here, the district court made no finding that Mr. Benjamin acted recklessly or in bad faith, that he committed intentional misconduct, or that he willfully disobeyed a court order. We therefore vacate and remand the case….We note that Mr. Benjamin could benefit from taking responsibility for his failure to monitor electronic notices in the case after judgment was entered. We also recommend that, on remand, the district court reconsider whether Mr. Benjamin’s conduct warranted the imposition of sanctions under applicable standards.”
On May 26, 2020, Chhabria made as new order, saying:
The Court finds explicitly what was implicit but not properly articulated in the prior sanctions order: counsel for Mr. Edwards, Na’il Benjamin, acted recklessly and in bad faith in his representation of Mr. Edwards following entry of judgment and specifically in his handling of the defendants’ efforts to obtain costs.”
In yesterday’s opinion, the Ninth Circuit panel found that Chhabria “made the necessary finding of bad faith” to justify the sanction.
The case is Edwards v. Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, 20-16173.
Chhabria on July 21, 2017, ordered Benjamin to pay the defendant roughly $5,500 to compensate it for half the attorney fees it paid for representation during the first two days of a four-day meet-and-confer session ordered by the court and referred to the referred to the Northern District of California’s Standing Committee on Professional Conduct allegations of intemperate conduct on the part of Benjamin during those sessions.
Benjamin was a professional football player from February 1998 to December 1999. He played for the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, and the then-Oakland Raiders.
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