PETIT-CLAIR et al v. STATE OF NEW JERSEY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge William J. Martini on 4/18/16. (gh, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 2:14-07082 (WJM)
ALFRED J. PETIT-CLAIR., and
MATTHEW J. PETIT-CLAIR,
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, A. MATTHEW
BOXER, Comptroller of the State of New
Jersey, CITY OF PERTH AMBOY,
GREGORY FEHRNBACH, Former Business
Administrator of the City of Perth Amboy,
WILLIAM A. PETRICK, Councilman, City of
Perth Amboy, KENNETH BALUT, former
City Councilman of the City of Perth Amboy,
JOHN DOES A-Z (fictitious names) and XYZ
CORPORATION A-Z (fictitious names).
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.:
Pro se Plaintiffs Alfred and Matthew Petit-Clair have filed the instant action alleging
that the City of Perth Amboy (“Perth Amboy”) unlawfully revoked retirement benefits
through the passage of a 2009 ordinance (hereinafter, “the 2009 Ordinance”). This matter
comes before the Court on Perth Amboy’s motion for the imposition of sanctions. For the
reasons that follow, Perth Amboy’s motion will be DENIED.
The Court writes primarily for the benefit of the parties and assumes familiarity with
the facts. The Court will refer to Alfred J. Petit-Clair as “Petit-Clair,” and Matthew J. PetitClair as “Matthew.”
In 2014, Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint (“SAC”) against Perth Amboy.
The Complaint included, among other things a number of claims asserting that the 2009
Ordinance unlawfully revoked Petit-Clair’s retirement benefits. Before moving to dismiss,
Perth Amboy sent Petit-Clair a letter warning him that it would move for sanctions if he
did not withdraw his claims concerning the 2009 Ordinance. Specifically, the letter
explained that those claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata and were therefore
frivolous. On August 4, 2015, the Court granted Perth Amboy’s motion to dismiss with
respect to claims relating to the 2009 Ordinance. The Court based its decision on the
determination that the 2009 Ordinance claims were barred by New Jersey’s Entire
As promised in its previous letter, Perth Amboy subsequently filed the instant motion.
Petit-Clair opposes the motion, contending that the imposition of sanctions would not be
As already explained, Perth Amboy accuses Petit-Clair of filing frivolous claims that
were unquestionably barred by either res judicata or New Jersey’s Entire Controversy
Doctrine. The Court finds that even if Perth Amboy’s motion for sanctions had substantive
merit, it must be denied because Perth Amboy has failed to strictly comply with Rule 11’s
“safe harbor provision.”
Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to move for the
imposition of sanctions against an adversary. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(2). However, Rule
11 also requires that before a party files a motion for sanctions, it must wait 21 days after
it serves the motion on the party against whom sanctions are sought. See id. (“The motion
must be served under Rule 5, but it must not be filed or presented to the court if the
challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, or denial is withdrawn or appropriately
corrected within 21 days after service within another time the court sets.”) This rule is also
known as the “safe harbor provision.”
Nearly every federal appellate court in the country has held that a Rule 11 motion can
be granted only where the movant demonstrates strict compliance with the safe harbor
provision. See, e.g., Brickwood Contractors Inc. v. Datanet Eng’g, Inc., 369 F.3d 385, 389
(4th Cir. 2004); Gordon v. Unifund CCR Partners, 345 F.3d 1028, 1030 (8th Cir. 2003);
Radcliffe v. Rainbow Constr. Co., 254 F.3d 772, 789 (9th Cir. 2001). But see Nisenbaum
v. Milwaukee County, 333 F.3d 804 (7th Cir. 2003). Similarly, the Third Circuit has held
that in the bankruptcy context, a court can grant a Rule 9011 motion for sanctions only
where the movant strictly complies the technical requirements of the Rule’s safe harbor
provision. See In re Miller, 730 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2013) (“strict compliance with the
safe harbor rule is required.”) While no one will mistake this action for a bankruptcy
proceeding, the Third Circuit has noted on multiple occasions that “Bankruptcy Rule 9011
is the equivalent sanctions rule to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” which
means that cases decided pursuant to Rule 9011 also apply to Rule 11. See id. at 204 n.4
(citations and quotations omitted). Courts have embraced a strict compliance rule because
the safe harbor provision is there to “protect litigants from sanctions whenever possible in
order to mitigate Rule 11’s chilling effects [while also] formalizing procedural due process
considerations….” 5A Charles Alan Wright and Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and
Procedure § 1337.2, at 722 (3d ed. 2004).
Here, Perth Amboy did not maintain strict compliance with the safe harbor provision.
Prior to filing its motion, Perth Amboy sent a self-described “safe harbor letter” to PetitClair explaining why the city believed the complaint to be frivolous insofar as it related to
the 2009 Ordinance. The letter further warned that if Petit-Clair did not withdraw certain
claims, Perth Amboy would file a motion for sanctions. However, Rule 11(c)(2)
unequivocally provides that the movant must serve the actual motion on its adversary at
least 21 days before it files the motion with the Court. Here, Petit-Clair did not receive
Perth Amboy’s motion until October 19, 2015, the same day it was filed with this Court.
Because Perth Amboy has failed to maintain strict compliance with Rule 11(c)(2)’s safe
harbor provision, its motion for sanctions must be DENIED. See, e.g., Roth v. Green, 466
F.3d 1179, 1992 (10th Cir. 2006) (warning or safe harbor letters do not comply with Rule
11’s safe harbor provision); Gal v. Viacom Int’l, Inc., 403 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)
(warning letters fail to comply with safe harbor provision because “the plain language of
the rule states explicitly that service of the motion itself is required to begin the safe harbor
clock – the rule says nothing about the use of letters.”)
For the foregoing reasons, Perth Amboy’s motion for sanctions is DENIED.
/s/ William J. Martini
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
Date: April 18th, 2016
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