Cooter Gell v. Hartmarx Corporation/Concurrence Stevens

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion

Justice STEVENS, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Rule 11 and Rule 41(a)(1) are both designed to facilitate the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of cases in federal court. Properly understood, the two Rules should work in conjunction to prevent the prosecution of needless or baseless lawsuits. Rule 11 requires the court to impose an "appropriate sanction" on a litigant who wastes judicial resources by filing a pleading that is not well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good-faith argument for its extension, modification, or reversal. Rule 41(a)(1) permits a plaintiff who decides not to continue a lawsuit to withdraw his complaint before an answer or motion for summary judgment has been filed and avoid further proceedings on the basis of that complaint. The Court today, however, refuses to read the two Rules together in light of their limited, but valuable, purposes. By focusing on the filing of baseless complaints, without any attention to whether those complaints will result in the waste of judicial resources, the Court vastly expands the contours of Rule 11, eviscerates Rule 41(a)(1), and creates a federal common law of malicious prosecution inconsistent with the limited mandate of the Rules Enabling Act.

Prior to the adoption of Rule 41(a)(1), a plaintiff in federal court could dismiss an action at law up until the entry of the verdict or judgment. Under that practice, an unscrupulous plaintiff could harass a defendant by filing repetitive baseless lawsuits as long as each was dismissed prior to an adverse ruling on the merits. The Rule is designed to further the just decision of cases in two significant ways. First, by providing that a second voluntary dismissal is an adjudication on the merits, and that the first such dismissal is without prejudice only if the dismissal precedes the filing of an answer or a motion for summary judgment, Rule 41(a)(1) satisfies the interest in preventing the abusive filing of repetitious, frivolous lawsuits. Second, and of equal importance, by giving the plaintiff the absolute, unqualified right to dismiss his complaint without permission of the court or notice to his adversary, the framers of Rule 41(a)(1) intended to preserve the right of the plaintiff to reconsider his decision to file suit "during the brief period before the defendant had made a significant commitment of time and money." Ante, at 397. The Rule permits a plaintiff to file a complaint to preserve his rights under a statute of limitations and then reconsider that decision prior to the joinder of issue and the commencement of litigation.

In theory, Rule 11 and Rule 41(a)(1) should work in tandem. When a complaint is withdrawn under Rule 41(a)(1), the merits of that complaint are not an appropriate area of further inquiry for the federal court. The predicate for the imposition of sanctions, the complaint, has been eliminated under the express authorization of the Federal Rules before the court has been required to take any action on it, and the consideration of a Rule 11 motion on a dismissed complaint would necessarily result in an increase in the judicial workload. When a plaintiff persists in the prosecution of a meritless complaint, however, or the defendant joins issue by filing an answer or motion for summary judgment, Rule 11 has a proper role to play. The prosecution of baseless lawsuits and the filing of frivolous papers are matters of legitimate concern to the federal courts and are abuses that Rule 11 was designed to deter.

The Court holds, however, that a voluntary dismissal does not eliminate the predicate for a Rule 11 violation because a frivolous complaint that is withdrawn burdens "courts and individuals alike with needless expense and delay." Ante, at 398. That assumption is manifestly incorrect with respect to courts. The filing of a frivolous complaint which is voluntarily withdrawn imposes a burden on the court only if the notation of an additional civil proceeding on the court's docket sheet can be said to constitute a burden. By definition, a voluntary dismissal under Rule 41(a)(1) means that the court has not had to consider the factual allegations of the complaint or ruled on a motion to dismiss its legal claims.

The Court's observation that individuals are burdened, even if correct, is irrelevant. Rule 11 is designed to deter parties from abusing judicial resources, not from filing complaints. Whatever additional costs in reputation or legal expenses the defendant might incur, on top of those that are the product of being in a dispute, [1] are likely to be either minimal or noncompensable. [2] More fundamentally, the fact that the filing of a complaint imposes costs on a defendant should be of no concern to the rulemakers if the complaint does not impose any costs on the judiciary: the Rules Enabling Act does not give us authority to create a generalized federal common law of malicious prosecution divorced from concerns with the efficient and just processing of cases in federal court. The only result of the Court's interpretation will be to increase the frequency of Rule 11 motions and decrease that of voluntary dismissals.

I agree that dismissal of an action pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1) does not deprive the district court of jurisdiction to resolve collateral issues. [3] A court thus may impose sanctions for contempt on a party who has voluntarily dismissed his complaint or impose sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 against lawyers who have multiplied court proceedings vexatiously. A court may also impose sanctions under Rule 11 for a complaint that is not withdrawn before a responsive pleading is filed or for other pleadings that are not well grounded and find no warrant in the law or arguments for the law's extension, modification or reversal. If a plaintiff files a false or frivolous affidavit in response to a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, I have no doubt that he can be sanctioned for that filing. In those cases, the action of the party constitutes an abuse of judicial resources. But when a plaintiff has voluntarily dismissed a complaint pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1), a collateral proceeding to examine whether the complaint is well grounded will stretch out the matter long beyond the time in which either the plaintiff or the defendant would otherwise want to litigate the merits of the claim. An interpretation that can only have the unfortunate consequences of encouraging the filing of sanction motions and discouraging voluntary dismissals cannot be a sensible interpretation of Rules that are designed "to secure the just, speedy, andin expensive determination of every action." Fed.Rule Civ. Proc. 1.

Despite the changes that have taken place at the bar since I left the active practice 20 years ago, I still believe that most lawyers are wise enough to know that their most precious asset is their professional reputation. Filing unmeritorious pleadings inevitably tarnishes that asset. Those who do not understand this simple truth can be dealt with in appropriate disciplinary proceedings, state-law actions for malicious prosecution or abuse of process, or, in extreme cases, contempt proceedings. It is an unnecessary waste of judicial resources and an unwarranted perversion of the Federal Rules to hold such lawyers liable for Rule 11 sanctions in actions in federal court.


^1  It is telling that the primary injury that the respondents point to is the injury to their reputation caused by the public attention that lawsuit attracted. Brief for Respondents 19.

^2  In those rare cases in which the defendant properly incurs great costs in preparing a motion to dismiss a frivolous complaint, he can lock in the right to file a Rule 11 motion by answering the complaint and making his motion to dismiss in the form of a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings.

^3  I also join Parts I, II, IV, and V of the Court's opinion.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).