CHICAGO (CN) - A lawsuit filed by a man described in court documents as "almost a pauper" should not been dismissed solely because he was unable to pay a court-imposed sanction, the 7th Circuit ruled.
After he was arrested and later released without charge, Illinois resident Bruce Williams filed suit against four officers, alleging Fourth Amendment violations. According to Williams, the officers arrested him without probable cause and proceeded to assault him, causing facial scars that made it impossible for him to follow his vocation of cosmetologist/educator.
Williams was allowed to proceed in forma pauperis and his claims of excessive force against two officers were granted a trial. Williams then retained attorney Garry Alonzo Payton on a contingent-fee basis.
Six months after the court's deadline for the filing of a final pretrial order, and after repeated attempts to elicit a response from a draft pretrial order, the defendants moved for sanctions. Judge Wayne Andersen declined to dismiss the case, but refused to schedule a pretrial conference.
Instead he ordered Williams and Payton to reimburse the legal expenses incurred in order to obtain a response to the draft order -- totaling approximately $9,000. The order directed payment to be made within 30 days.
Williams unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a payment plan at a rate of $25 per month, unable to afford more on his $1,050 monthly salary. The defendants rejected the plan and the 30-day deadline passed without payment.
Though he acknowledged Williams' poverty, Judge Andersen dismissed the case for failure to pay the sanction.
7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner criticized the dismissal, which he said was a disproportionate response to Williams' misdoing.
"[Williams] was given 30 days; he sought 11,000. But the court was mistaken to term the plaintiff's failure to pay 'contumacious.' No one doubts that he can't afford to pay the monetary sanction," Posner wrote. "To ignore a party's inability to pay a sanction could result in a disproportionate punishment-as this case illustrates.
Had the case been allowed to proceed to trial, the $10,000 settlement offered by defendants alone could have covered the sanction.
Williams "resourcefully" complained to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, blaming Payton for the delay in responding to the pretrial order. The commission agreed and ordered Payton to pay the sanction and suspended him for 45 days.
Posner applauded the decision. "Payton got off lightly. Ignoring the need to prepare a pretrial order was inexcusable. Ignoring the order to pay sanctions was worse; it was contempt of court," he wrote.
That outcome, the court ruled, warranted the case's reinstatement.
"This case, filed more than six and a half years ago, was derailed by the sanctions proceeding. With that proceeding now terminated, we trust that the district court will move the case to completion without further delay," Posner concluded.