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Christian v. Mattel, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff James Hicks appeals from a District Court order requiring him, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, to pay Defendant Mattel, Inc. $501,565 in attorneys’ fees that it incurred in defending against what the District Court determined to be a frivolous action.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Rule 11 sanctions are limited to misconduct regarding signed pleadings, motions, and other filings.

    Facts. Attorney James Hicks brought suit on behalf of Harry Christian, claiming that Mattel’s Barbie dolls infringed Christian’s Claudene doll sculpture copyright. The District Court found that Plaintiff should have discovered prior to commencing the civil action that Defendant’s dolls could not have infringed Christian’s copyright because, among other things, the Defendant’s dolls had been created well prior to the Claudene doll and the Defendant’s dolls had clearly visible copyright notices on their heads. After determining that Plaintiff had behaved “boorishly” during discovery and had a lengthy rap sheet of prior litigation misconduct, the District Court imposed sanctions. The District Court ordered Plaintiff, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, to pay Defendant $501,565 in attorneys’ fees that it incurred in defending against what the District Court determined to be a frivolous action.

    Issue. Whether Rule 11 sanctions are permissible for the filing of what the Court determines to be a frivolous action.

    Held. Yes. Although the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the complaint filed by Hicks was frivolous under Rule 11 it nevertheless vacated the District Court’s orders and remand for further proceedings because Rule 11 sanctions are limited to misconduct regarding signed pleadings, motions, and other filings.

    Discussion. In reaching its decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals relied on the fact that the district court had failed to make clear what specific conduct of Hicks’ it was ordering sanctions pursuant to. Thus, because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was unable to tell whether the misconduct being sanctioned occurred outside the pleadings, such as in oral argument, at a meeting of counsel, or at a key deposition, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had no choice but to reverse the sanctions order given that Rule 11 sanctions are limited to misconduct regarding filing of court papers.


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