(CN) - The 9th Circuit ordered a new hearing Monday for an attorney who was sanctioned $360,000 for pursuing frivolous claims against the city of San Francisco, giving the lawyer a second chance to show that he cannot pay the fine on the "less than $20,000 per year" that he earns from his practice.
Attorney Gregory Haynes "engaged in a wide variety of incompetent and unprofessional actions" while helping a client sue San Francisco and dozens of city and state officials on excessive force and unlawful detention claims related to the client's involuntary detention in a psychiatric facility, according to the court.
All of the claims were eventually dismissed, but the defendants amassed large legal bills defending themselves and engaging in "multiple discovery disputes" with Haynes.
A magistrate judge recommended that the District Court in San Francisco impose sanctions on Haynes for the defendants' fees and costs, which amounted to $362,545.61. Presiding U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White agreed and adopted the recommendation in full.
Haynes argued for reconsideration, claiming that he could not possibly pay the fine "because he had earned less than $20,000 in each of the last three years, had no assets, and was a sole practitioner," according to the court.
The District Court refused to budge, however, and suggested that it did not have the discretion to reduce the award. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court found otherwise and remanded the case in a brief ruling Monday from San Francisco.
"This Circuit has not yet directly addressed whether and how a district court should consider an attorney's ability to pay when it imposes a sanction award pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927," wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt for the unanimous panel. "We now join the Second Circuit in holding that, in imposing sanctions pursuant to § 1927, 'it lies well within the district court's discretion to temper the amount to be awarded against an offending attorney by a balancing consideration of his ability to pay.'"
"In any case," Reinhardt added, "imposing sanctions in an amount many times greater than the attorney will ever be able to pay may in some instances represent only a futile gesture that does little either to compensate victims or to deter future violators."