A Princeton lawyer who filed a questionable civil rights suit against the school district that suspended his son for knife possession was improperly sanctioned for his motion practices, a federal appeals court says.
Rotimi Owoh engaged in "dilatory tactics" and "frivolous filings," but the sanction must be reversed because he was not given proper notice he was facing a penalty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held on Tuesday.
The appeals court also affirmed two rulings denying Owoh’s request for additional discovery in the suit, O.R. v. Hutner, 10-cv-1711.
The litigation stemmed from a 2004 incident in which Owoh’s son, a 13-year-old student at Community Middle School in Plainsboro, was found in possession of a folding, lock-blade knife. School officials suspended him from class for 10 days and notified police. He was adjudicated a delinquent in the Superior Court Family Part.
Owoh, in his suit against the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District and various administrators filed in September 2006, alleged the boy received disparate treatment because he is black and of Nigerian ancestry. Superior Court Judge Thomas Sumners Jr. of Mercer County dismissed that case in August 2008.
Owoh filed three other suits against the school district. The first, in October 2006, claimed the district wrongly denied his requests under the Open Public Records Act for information about violent incidents in the school district. In September 2007, he filed two OPRA suits, seeking information about how often police were contacted for weapons-related incidents and about one in which a student brought bullets to school. Judge Linda Feinberg dismissed all three OPRA suits in May 2008.
In March 2010, the Appellate Division affirmed dismissal of the civil rights suit and the three OPRA suits.
That month, Owoh filed the present suit in federal court in Trenton, claiming the school district denied his constitutional right of access to the courts by concealing information and documents.
U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson granted a defense motion to dismiss that suit in June 2010, and five months later ordered Owoh to pay $4,500 in counsel fees to his adversary under Rule 11 for filing a new suit raising claims settled in prior litigation. The Third Circuit affirmed in July 2011.
Owoh followed with additional motions in August and December of 2011, contesting accuracy of invoices submitted by opposing counsel in connection with the motion for sanctions and seeking a hearing on the amount of legal fees paid by the school district’s insurance carrier.
Thompson denied those motions, calling the information he was seeking immaterial, and, sua sponte, issued a second $4,500 Rule 11 sanction in January 2012.
Reversing, U.S. Circuit Judges Joseph Greenaway Jr., Richard Nygaard and Franklin Van Antwerpen said Tuesday that a court must give notice and an opportunity to respond before imposing sanctions on an attorney.
The party sought to be sanctioned is entitled to "particularized notice, including, at a minimum, 1) the fact that Rule 11 sanctions are under consideration, 2) the reasons why sanctions are under consideration, and 3) the form of sanctions under consideration." The notice must also tell the party what factors he must to address to avoid sanctions, Greenaway wrote for the panel.
Greenaway said Thompson "expressed frustration" with Mr. Owoh in a December 8, 2011, order denying a motion for reconsideration.
"Although this order may be viewed as providing Mr. Owoh with some notice of the sanctionable conduct, the order did not state that Rule 11 sanctions were under consideration, nor did it state the type of sanction being considered. Moreover, the order was not formatted as an order to show cause, as is specifically required by R. 11(c)(3)," so Owoh did not have an opportunity to respond before the additional sanction was imposed, Greenaway said.
"We recognize that dealing with a litigant who, even in the face of repeated rebukes, continues to make frivolous filings, can seem like a Sisyphean task. In this regard, the District Court exercised the patience of Job," Greenaway said. "However, … the procedural dictates at issue require us to vacate the … sanction award and remand to the District Court."
Owoh did not return a message left at his office. The school district’s lawyer, Eric Harrison of Edison’s Methfessel & Werbel, declined to comment.
Charles Toutant is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.