O'Bryan v. Joe Taylor Restoration, Inc. et al
ORDER denying 15 Defendants' Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions. Signed by Magistrate Judge William Matthewman on 1/6/2021. See attached document for full details. (kza)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
Case No. 20-cv-80993 DIMITROULEAS/MATTHEWMAN
JOE TAYLOR RESTORATION, INC.,
AARON GETTY, KAREN RADEWICZ,
and GLENDA GALARZA,
Jan 6, 2021
West Palm Beach
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR RULE 11 SANCTIONS
THIS CAUSE is before the Court upon Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions Pursuant to
Rule 11 [DE 15]. This matter was referred to the undersigned by the Honorable United States
District Judge William Dimitrouleas. [DE 18]. The matter is fully briefed and the Court held a
hearing on the Motion on January 5, 2021. Thus, this matter is now ripe for review.
Plaintiff filed a Complaint on June 3, 2020, alleging one count of FFCRA 1 Interference
and one count of FFCRA Retaliation which sought damages for Defendants’ alleged failure to
abide by the FMLA as it relates to sick leave for employees missing work for reasons related to
COVID-19. [DE 1]. On July 20, 2020, Defendants filed an Answer. [DE 6].
On October 12, 2020, Defendants sent Plaintiff a Rule 11 demand letter. [DE 15-2]. This
demand letter stated that Plaintiff has no cause of action under the FMLA because Plaintiff “has
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”), Pub. L. 116–127, contains both the Emergency Family
and Medical Leave Expansion Act (“EFMLEA”) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (“EPSLA”). The EFMLEA
and EPSLA are modeled after the Family Medical leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”),
respectively, to provide paid leave and other benefits to employees for various reasons related to COVID-19.
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not alleged he was unable to work due to a need for leave to care for a child under 18 years of age,
whose school or place of care has been closed, or that the care provider of such child was
unavailable, due to COVID-19.” [DEs 15, 15-1]. On October 15, 2020, Plaintiff voluntarily
dismissed Count Two—FFCRA Retaliation—only. [DEs 12, 13].
On November 6, 2020, Defendants filed a Rule 11 motion. [DE 15]. This motion mirrored
the demand letter and alleged that Plaintiff was not entitled to any relief under the FMLA.
Defendants acknowledged that Plaintiff withdrew Count Two, but argued that Count One still
improperly asserted a claim under the FMLA against them. That same day, Defendants also filed
a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“MJOP”), which contained this same argument as to
Count One. [DE 14].
Plaintiff responded to the MJOP on November 12, 2020. [DE 16]. In Plaintiff’s response
to the MJOP, Plaintiff sought leave to file an amended complaint which correctly cites the EPSLA
instead of the FMLA. Id. On November 18, 2020, the Honorable United States District Judge
William Dimitrouleas denied Defendants’ MJOP and granted Plaintiff leave to file an Amended
Complaint. [DE 18]. Later that same day, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. [DE 19]. In this
Amended Complaint, Plaintiff removed all mention of the “FMLA,” and instead sought damages
pursuant to the EPSLA. Id.
In this case, there is no dispute that Plaintiff’s counsel erred when he cited the FMLA in
the initial Complaint rather than the EPSLA. The question is, does that mistake merit Rule 11
sanctions? Succinctly stated, the answer is no.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b) states in relevant part that, when an attorney
presents to the court a pleading, that attorney “certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge,
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information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances” that the
pleading is not being presented for an improper purpose, the claims and legal contentions are
supported by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing existing law, and the factual
conditions have evidentiary support. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b). “Rule 11 sanctions are designed to
discourage dilatory or abusive tactics and help to streamline the litigation process by
lessening frivolous claims or defenses.” Shipping & Transit, LLC v. Demandware, Inc., No. 1580098-CIV, 2015 WL 11438496, at *1 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 4, 2015) (quoting Didie v. Howes, 988 F.2d
1097, 1104 (11th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted)). “They may be imposed for the
purpose of deterrence, compensation and punishment.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
“Rule 11 is not a vehicle for a defendant to test its defenses to a claim. It is a device to
sanction plaintiffs who assert claims (or defendants who assert defenses) with no legal or factual
basis. Fairly debatable legal contentions are beyond Rule 11’s reach. Due to both the gravity of
the consequences of a Rule 11 motion and the need to not trivialize conduct that truly merits
sanctions, Rule 11 motions should be employed sparingly.” O'Boyle v. Sweetapple, No. 14-CV81250-KAM/WM, 2016 WL 9559959, at *4 (S.D. Fla. May 17, 2016).
“Rule 11 requires a two-step inquiry: (1) a determination whether the non-moving party's
claims are objectively frivolous; and (2) whether the party should have been aware that the claims
were frivolous.” Philippeaux v. City of Coral Springs, No. 19-60617-CV, 2019 WL 10303694, at
*9 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 16, 2019), report and recommendation adopted in part, No. 19-60617-CIV,
2020 WL 2846531 (S.D. Fla. June 2, 2020) (citing Adams v. Austal, U.S.A., L.L.C., 503 F. App'x
699, 703 (11th Cir. 2013)) (“A court conducts a two-step inquiry when evaluating a motion
for Rule 11 sanctions: (1) determining whether the non-moving party's claims are objectively
frivolous; and (2) determining whether counsel [or a pro se party] should have been aware that
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they were frivolous.”).
In this case, the Court finds that the initial Complaint filed by Plaintiff’s counsel does not
materially run afoul of Rule 11. The FFCRA, which contains the EPSLA, became effective only
on April 1, 2020, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mistaken citations thereto are
therefore not entirely surprising. Although the Court expects counsel to be diligent and accurate in
filing pleadings, simple mistakes do occur at times. This Court does not impose harsh Rule 11
sanctions for simple mistakes by counsel, especially where, as here, Defendants have suffered no
prejudice. Plaintiff’s incorrect citation to the FMLA in the initial Complaint was corrected when
the Amended Complaint cited the EPSLA.
The Court would have expected and preferred this matter to have been amicably resolved
by conferral between counsel. Far from frivolous, the mistaken citation in the initial Complaint is
a hyper-technical violation that is not cognizable under Rule 11. Clearly, Rule 11 is not a “gotcha
rule.” Instead, it was designed to sanction lawyers who sign and file patently frivolous pleadings
or motions. The Court finds that there was no bad faith or frivolous conduct exhibited by Plaintiff
or Plaintiff’s counsel in this case. In any event, even if Plaintiff’s failure to remedy the mistake
within the safe harbor period was arguably a violation of Rule 11, such violation would be hypertechnical, and the Court would decline to award sanctions for such conduct. See Salazar v. Wells
Fargo Bank, N.A., 2011 WL 379145, at *4 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 2, 2011) (“The decision is discretionary
as Rule 11(c) (1) provides “appropriate” sanctions “may” be imposed.”). After considering the
docket, filings and the arguments of counsel, the Court finds that Rule 11 sanctions are wholly
Finally, the Court must also address Defendants’ collateral request that the Court defer
ruling on the factual (as opposed to legal) portion of their Rule 11 motion until more appropriate
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stages later during this litigation. The Court declines to defer ruling on the Motion and denies any
fact-based Rule 11 request as premature. The Court does not have an adequate basis to find a factbased violation of Rule 11 at this time. Moreover, this Court’s practice is not to defer or delay
rulings unless absolutely necessary, as such delay or deferral can serve to protract or complicate
litigation. Defendants may bring any fact-based Rule 11 motion before the Court at the appropriate
time, if they can do so in good faith and without Defendants themselves or their counsel violating
Rule 11. Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions
[DE 15] is DENIED.
DONE and ORDERED in Chambers at West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, Florida,
this 6th day of January 2021.
United States Magistrate Judge
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