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An Ottawa, Ill., appeals court recently reminded Illinois’ youngest lawyers that an associate generally has no right to be reimbursed from his law firm for any sanctions that might be imposed by a trial court, even though the alleged misconduct he engaged in occurred while being supervised by a partner. Levin v. Seigel & Capitel, Ltd., No. 3-99-0697. In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the associate’s complaint, the Illinois Appellate Court’s Third District said that neither the statutory concept of contribution nor the common law rule of indemnification — both of which are usually applicable in personal injury cases — could be asserted by the junior lawyer because the sanctions to be imposed were based on procedural Rule 137 which covers attorney misconduct. This overriding “rule is penal in nature and not based upon common law tort principles,” noted Justice Thomas J. Homer, who wrote the unanimous opinion for the court. “Rule 137 has a specific purpose of preventing the abuse of the judicial process by punishing individuals who sign pleadings, bringing vexatious, or harassing litigation based upon unfounded statements.” The fact that the associate was being supervised by a partner in the firm at the time of his allegedly sanctionable conduct was irrelevant, the court added. As a result, he also could not assert a “they made me do it” sort of defense based on an agency theory. “This personal responsibility is nondelegable and not subject to principles of agency or joint and several liability,” Homer wrote. The jurist concluded by quoting the U.S. Supreme Court when it considered a similar case involving a similar contempt of court rule used in federal courts: “‘The message thereby conveyed to the attorney, that this [sanctionable courtroom conduct] is not a team effort but in the last analysis yours alone’” The now defunct Seigel & Capitel, Ltd., the court wrote, was retained by a boat maintenance company to sue its lender in a contract dispute. Samuel Levin, an associate with the law firm at the time was the attorney of record in the case and signed all the pleadings filed with the court. But after the contract action was summarily dismissed by a trial court, the defendant-bank filed its own motion for Rule 137 sanctions against Levin and his law firm. The bank insisted that the allegations in the attorney’s pleadings had been unfounded and not made in good faith. That’s when Levin filed his complaint for contribution and/or indemnification against Seigel & Capitel, alleging that he had been supervised by his law firm’s partners during the contract dispute and that he had been acting within the scope of his employment. The law firm moved to dismiss Levin’s compliant and the trial court agreed to do so, finding no express promise or contract between the bickering lawyers that would cover the situation and thereby justify the relief requested. Homer agreed, too. “Upon careful review,” he concluded, there is simply no way around the “plain meaning” of Rule 137 and its refusal to treat an associate with kid gloves just because he is working for a senior attorney in a partnership setting. None of the parties could immediately be reached for comment.

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