U.S. District Court Chief Judge for the District of Columbia Royce Lamberth denied sanctions this week against the D.C. Attorney General's office for producing last-minute discovery in a false arrest case. Calling the situation a "symptom of a clear disease of habit," however, Lamberth warned that "the District itself isn’t 'off the hook' by any stretch of the imagination."
The attorney general's office was facing a sanctions request from Lindsay Huthnance, who successfully sued the city and a group of local police officers over her 2005 arrest, claiming they came up with a trumped-up disorderly conduct charge in retaliation for publicly criticizing them.
The day before the trial was scheduled to begin on a Monday, March 7, Huthnance’s attorneys filed an emergency motion to strike amendments to discovery responses the city’s attorneys had submitted on Saturday, as well as the city’s notice that it intended to amend its exhibit list. The motion included a request for sanctions for what Huthnance and her attorneys called the city’s “Hail Mary” pass.
The attorney general’s office argued that the current attorneys working on the case shouldn’t be blamed for what it characterized as good-faith errors made by previous counsel during case preparation. The office noted in its response that the previous counsel had to leave “due to a medical emergency.”
In an opinion (PDF) released on Wednesday, Lamberth said he agreed that the city attorneys working on the case at the time of trial couldn’t be held responsible, but said he thought the office had a history of switching up counsel and then claiming it couldn’t be blamed for any mistakes after the fact.
“This Court has gone on the record here and elsewhere about its strong disapproval of the District’s discovery habits. It won’t continue to beat the proverbial dead horse,” Lamberth wrote. “Instead, it merely notes that the District’s behavior in this case was the symptom of a clear disease of habit that the District must cure.”
The opinion marks the second time in recent weeks that Lamberth has expressed his frustration with how the city handles litigation. In a May 9 opinion in an unrelated case, Lamberth accused the city and the attorney general’s office of "repeated, flagrant, and unrepentant failures to comply with Court orders" in their handling of discovery in a six-year class action suit.
In that opinion, Lamberth wrote that “a discovery violation of this exotic magnitude is literally unheard of in this Court.”
The attorney general’s office has declined to comment on the recent actions in the Huthnance case. The city still has a pending request for judgment or for a new trial.