P & L v. Marvel Entertainment, 493 U.S. 120 (1989)

Author: Justice Marshall

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P & L v. Marvel Entertainment, 493 U.S. 120 (1989)

Justice MARSHALL, dissenting.

We have consistently held that a trial judge bears the primary responsibility for managing the cases before him. One of the fundamental purposes of Rule 11 is to strengthen the hand of the trial judge in his efforts to police abusive litigation practices and to provide him sufficient flexibility to craft penalties appropriate to each case. The Court’s interpretation of Rule 11, in contrast, is overly restrictive, as it reads into the Rule an absolute immunity for law firms from any sanction for their misconduct.

Although the Court recognizes that the relevant phrase in Rule 11 -- "the person who signed" the pleading, motion, or paper at issue -- could mean a juridical person on whose behalf the document is signed, ante at 458, it nonetheless finds that the phrase has a more limited meaning in the context of the Rule as a whole. As I cannot acquiesce in such an unnecessary erosion of the discretion of federal trial judges, I dissent.

The Court’s reading of the "plain meaning" of Rule 11, is based entirely on the connection it perceives between the language at the beginning of the Rule, which refers to an individual "signer," and the crucial language in the last sentence, which allows a court to impose sanctions on "the person who signed" a pleading or paper. Ante at 123-124. Although the text of the Rule does not foreclose the reading the Court finds compelling, that interpretation is by no means the only reasonable one -- and certainly is not required by the "plain meaning." Significantly, in three separate places the Rule identifies the person signing a document as the "signer." Yet it uses an entirely different phrase, "the person who signed" the pleading, in its listing of parties who may be sanctioned for violations, thereby drawing an explicit distinction between the two phrases. If the drafters had intended to limit the entity that could be sanctioned under the Rule to the individual signer, they easily could have repeated the word "signer" a fourth time. The use of different phrases may reasonably be viewed as an indication of two different meanings. In the case of "signer," the drafters unambiguously sought to refer to the individual who actually signed the document; in their subsequent use of the phrase "the person who signed," the drafters may have signaled their intent to allow a court to impose sanctions on any juridical person, including the law firm of the individual signer. In the context of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, drafted by a committee familiar with traditional legal concepts, one can reasonably assume that the word "person" indicates more than just natural persons, encompassing partnerships and professional corporations as well. See, e.g., 5 U.S.C. § 551(2) (Administrative Procedure Act defines "person" as an "individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency"); N.Y. Partnership Law § 2 (McKinney 1988) (defining "person" to include "individuals, partnerships, corporations, and other associations"). At the least, an interpretation of Rule 11 that gives "person" its legal meaning is no less plausible than the majority’s more restrictive reading of the Rule.

The purposes of the Rule support this construction of Rule 11. All pleadings, motions and papers must be signed by an attorney in his individual name. This requirement serves in part the administrative goal of identifying for the court one person who can answer questions about the papers. Because Rule 11 proceedings often occur at the end of litigation, see Advisory Committee’s Notes on Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 11, 28 U.S.C.App., p. 129 (1982 ed., Supp. V), it will often be crucial that the relevant documents, which may have been filed months or even years earlier, identify a specific individual with knowledge of their contents. No such administrative concerns suggest that the phrase "the person who signed" the paper should be restricted to an individual.

Furthermore, as the majority emphasizes, ante at 460, the requirement of an individual signer promotes a measure of individual accountability by ensuring that someone takes direct responsibility for each filing. Yet encouraging individual accountability and firm accountability are not mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, individual accountability may be heightened when an attorney understands that his carelessness or maliciousness may subject both himself and his firm to liability. The concern that a person take direct responsibility for each paper is not disserved by holding the law firm responsible in cases where the district court determines that both are blameworthy. In short, it is not internally inconsistent, nor does it inevitably lead to "puzzling" results, ante at 459, to allow a trial judge the discretion to impose sanctions on a law firm, a juridical person, for which a signing attorney acts as agent.

The policies underlying Rule 11 decisively indicate that "person" should be interpreted broadly, so that a court can effectively exercise discretion in formulating appropriate sanctions. Although, as the majority infers from the Rule’s text, one purpose of Rule 11 may be "to bring home" to the individual signer his personal responsibility for complying with its dictates, ante at 460, the Rule is explicitly designed to deter improper pleadings, motions, and papers. Advisory Committee’s Notes on Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 11, 28 U.S.C.App., p. 129 ("The word `sanctions’ in the caption . . . stresses a deterrent orientation in dealing with improper pleadings"). Admittedly, in some cases, sanctions imposed solely on the individual signer may halt abusive practices most effectively. In other cases, however, deterrence might best be served by imposing sanctions on the signer’s law firm in an attempt to encourage internal monitoring. The trial judge is in the best position to assess the dynamics of each situation and to act accordingly.

Recognizing the need to tailor the sanction to each particular situation, the Advisory Committee emphasized in a related context the need for "flexibility" in dealing with violations. See ibid. (discussing the effect of the words "shall impose" on the trial court’s discretion to impose sanctions). Flexibility is no less important when a judge decides whether one, some, or all of the many entities before him should be held responsible for improper pleadings, motions, or papers. Where, as here, the Rule itself does not demand rigidity, it is unwise for the Court to constrict the options available to a trial judge faced with a violation of Rule 11. The judge who observes improper behavior and who is intimately familiar with the facts of a case should be allowed to fashion the penalty that most effectively deters future abuse. Today’s decision unwisely ties the hands of trial judges who must deal frequently and immediately with Rule 11 violations, and ill serves the goal of administering that Rule justly and efficiently. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 1.

The District Court apportioned the sanction here between the signing attorney and his law firm, based on its assessment of the relative culpability of each. 650 F.Supp. 684 (SDNY 1986). I firmly believe that this sort of penalty is precisely what Rule 11 contemplates. I therefore cannot join the Court’s reading of the Rule which creates an immunity for law firms from its coverage.


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Chicago: Marshall, "Marshall, J., Dissenting," P & L v. Marvel Entertainment, 493 U.S. 120 (1989) in 493 U.S. 120 493 U.S. 128–493 U.S. 131. Original Sources, accessed February 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EUB7BCWC4PFU7Q.

MLA: Marshall. "Marshall, J., Dissenting." P & L v. Marvel Entertainment, 493 U.S. 120 (1989), in 493 U.S. 120, pp. 493 U.S. 128–493 U.S. 131. Original Sources. 3 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EUB7BCWC4PFU7Q.

Harvard: Marshall, 'Marshall, J., Dissenting' in P & L v. Marvel Entertainment, 493 U.S. 120 (1989). cited in 1989, 493 U.S. 120, pp.493 U.S. 128–493 U.S. 131. Original Sources, retrieved 3 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EUB7BCWC4PFU7Q.