Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Lewisville Independent School District and seven School Board Members, alleging that the District’s at-large election system violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The District Court determined that Vaughan lacked standing to bring his Section 2 claim because he is white. The District Court then granted Defendants’ motion for sanctions against Vaughan, his attorneys, and their law firm, based on the findings that the lawsuit was frivolous under 52 U.S.C. §10310(e) and his attorneys multiplied proceedings unreasonably and vexatiously under 28 U.S.C. §1927. Holding that the filing of the lawsuit itself did not merit sanctions, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the order and remanded to the District Court to determine the extent to which defense costs were related to specific deposition abuses by plaintiff’s counsel.
“We first consider the district court’s assessment of attorney’s fees under the VRA’s fee-shifting provision. That statute provides for the prevailing party in a lawsuit to recover a reasonable attorney’s fee, reasonable expert fees, and other reasonable litigation expenses as part of the costs. The VRA’s fee-shifting language is subject to the Supreme Court’s guidance in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, however, which limits fee-shifting for prevailing defendants in civil rights cases to instances where the the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith….
“In this case, Vaughan argued that he had standing to bring a lawsuit under Section 2 of the VRA because he resided in a district affected by vote dilution, and this vote dilution occurred on the basis of race or color. In making this argument, Vaughan sought to extend Gill v. Whitford, a political gerrymandering case holding that dilution of an individual’s vote is a concrete harm when that individual lives in an affected district…. We conclude that sanctions against Vaughan were unwarranted because precedent in this circuit did not squarely foreclose his legal argument and because he sought to extend existing law. Critically, LISD points to no precedent in this circuit considering whether a voter in his position has standing under the VRA, let alone squarely controlling precedent. No court of appeals has considered this question, and we found only a single out-of-circuit district court opinion analyzing the issue. Furthermore, Vaughan argued that a recent Supreme Court case supported his claim to a voting injury. His argument is not sanctionable simply because the district court concluded it was wrong, particularly given ongoing evolution in courts’ views on standing in redistricting cases.”
With respect to the sanctions against Plaintiff’s Counsel under Section 1927, the District Court awarded fees against Vaughan’s attorneys after finding that they unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings by filing the action and pursued irrelevant lines of questioning during depositions. “As Vaughan’s lawsuit was not frivolous and relied on an unsettled legal theory, his attorneys cannot be sanctioned under §1927 simply for filing the action.”
At the same time, however, the Plaintiff’s attorneys nonetheless failed to convince the Court of Appeals that the District Court abused its discretion in awarding fees for conduct during depositions. “The attorneys questioned school board members on a range of topics that bear little relevance to a voting rights lawsuit, including a separate Title IX suit against the school district, claims of sexual harassment at a school, state standardized testing, mental health accommodations for students during standardized testing, and board members’ individual views on policy topics such as allowing teachers to carry guns on campus. Vaughan and his attorneys offer no theory of relevance to this court, noting only that LISD did not move to quash the depositions and made only form objections. While parties should resort to protective orders and attorney’s fees under Rule 30 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as a first line of defense, this court has never held that failure to file a Rule 30 motion precludes later relief under §1927 for unreasonable and vexatious multiplication of proceedings. The district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees LISD incurred for these depositions. On remand, the district court should identify which, if any, excess costs, expenses, or attorney’s fees were incurred because of the attorneys’ unreasonable and vexatious multiplication of proceedings through irrelevant deposition topics.”
Finally, Plaintiff’s Counsel argue that §1927 does not allow a district court to award attorney’s fees against Law Firms. The Fifth Circuit agreed. “The statute’s plain text provides for sanctions against any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof. Courts do not admit law firms to conduct cases, but instead admit individual attorneys. We furthermore find the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Clairborne v. Wisdom persuasive in its review of the statute’s text, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of an earlier version of Rule 11, and the specific inclusion of ‘law firms’ in the revised version of Rule 11. As such, we join the majority of our sister circuits in holding that §1927 does not provide grounds for a district court to award attorney’s fees against law firms or other entities not admitted to practice law.”
Vaughn v. Lewisville Independent School District, 62 F.4th 199 (5th Cir. 2023).