By Roshni Master, Staff Writer
The beginning of 2023 brought yet another loss for former President Donald Trump, as presiding Judge John Middlebrooks, sitting in the Southern District of Florida, ordered over one million dollars in sanctions holding Trump and his attorney, Alina Habba, jointly and severally liable for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. Trump brought suit against Hillary Clinton and former Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) officials, alleging that they tried to rig the 2016 election by smearing Trump. In his order, Judge Middlebrooks held the lawsuit was both factually and legally frivolous and brought “in bad faith for improper purpose.” While it is unusual to hold a client liable for sanctions, Judge Middlebrooks justified the substantial fees by indicating that Trump and Habba both knew the impact of their actions and that Trump is a “mastermind of strategic abuse against the judicial process and therefore cannot be seen as a litigant blindly following the advice of a lawyer.”
Trump is not the only individual accused of abusing the judicial process. This past December, the United States Court of Appeals upheld nearly two hundred thousand dollars in fees against two attorneys who brought and lost a frivolous claim against Meta Platforms, Inc., the maker of equipment used in U.S. elections. The claim was one of many that challenged President Joe Biden’s win against Trump in the 2020 election. There, Judge Jerome Holmes of the Tenth Circuit held only the attorneys accountable, stating “an attorney is expected to exercise judgment, and must regularly re-evaluate the merits of claims and ‘avoid prolonging meritless claims.”
Frivolous lawsuits have been on the rise over the last few years. In fact, data indicates a fifteen percent rise in motions granted for sanctions against frivolous claims between the years of 2015 and 2022. For a lawsuit to be deemed frivolous, the claim must have no legal or factual basis. These kinds of claims are usually brought for petty reasons or to delay other legal proceedings. However, attorneys must still respond in a timely manner to frivolous claims and can file a motion requesting that the judge dismiss the claim. Furthermore, under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, attorneys can file a separate motion for sanctions against the party who chose to bring the frivolous claim.
Frivolous claims are not only a nuisance for judges, taking up the court’s time and resources, but the claims can also have detrimental impacts on defendants. Thus, in order to deter these types of claims, the typical remedy for a frivolous claim is a steep monetary penalty. Additionally, court costs and attorneys’ fees are usually awarded to the prevailing party. Depending on the circumstances, a judge can also take a stronger stance and impose a citation and suspension of an attorney’s license. In significant cases, criminal charges can even be imposed.
While frivolous claims can be a harmful inconvenience and often reflect negatively on attorneys, there is a fine line attorneys must consider when they agree to represent a client. Courts were established to provide a means for dispute resolution based on legal principles, and a person who believes they were aggrieved should be entitled to approach the courts for relief without guaranteeing the validity of the claim on the merits. It is worth noting that attorneys face a difficult task in balancing claims for the purpose of harassment against claims that seek peaceful means for settling disputes.
Trump and his attorney have appealed the sanctions and will be presenting to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to have Judge Middlebrooks’s decision overturned.