ROBINSON v. DERRAH et al
MEMORANDUM. SIGNED BY HONORABLE GERALD J. PAPPERT ON 5/22/2017. 5/23/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO SE AND E-MAILED.(ahf)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
LYDIA M. ROBINSON,
WILLIAM JAMES DERRAH, SR., and
LANEKO ENGINEERING COMPANY,
May 22, 2017
This is the second lawsuit brought by Thomas E. Robinson, Jr. against William
Derrah and the Laneko Engineering Company. The first time around, Thomas, Jr.
unsuccessfully sued the Defendants in the Montgomery County Court of Common
Pleas. See Robinson v. Laneko Eng’g Co. et al., No. 14-5036, ECF No. 1, at 10. In that
case, he alleged that the Defendants owed him benefits under his father Thomas Sr.’s
ERISA-governed pension plan (“the Plan”). (Id. at 11–13.) The Defendants removed
the case and the Court eventually granted the Defendants’ motion for summary
judgment on the grounds that Thomas, Jr. lacked standing to pursue his father’s
benefits. Robinson v. Laneko Eng’g Co. et al., No. 14-5036, 2015 WL 4000145, at 4–5
(E.D. Pa. July 1, 2015). Because Thomas, Jr. was not the Plan participant, the Court
held that he would only have standing to recover his father’s benefits if he were a plan
beneficiary. Id. He failed, however, “to show that he [was] ‘a person designated by a
participant, or by the terms of an employee benefit plan, who is or may become entitled
to a benefit thereunder’” and therefore could not show he was a plan beneficiary under
The Court also noted that Thomas, Jr. failed to produce evidence that could
prove what type, if any, retirement distribution his father selected. Robinson, 2015 WL
4000145, at *1. Thomas, Jr. had produced his father’s Participant Election Form,
which allowed participants of the Plan to select one of four options to receive their
retirement benefits. See id. The form, dated May 5, 1999, indicated that “option four
(the annuity) [was] selected.” Id. The form, however, was unsigned. Id. Thomas, Jr.
appealed the Court’s decision and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. See
Robinson v. Laneko Eng’g Co., 634 F. App’x 355 (3d Cir. 2016) (Mem.).
Thomas, Jr., who is not a lawyer, now purports to sue for the same benefits on
behalf of his mother, Lydia Robinson. Lydia Robinson ostensibly filed the Complaint in
this case on November 22, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) On January 5, 2017, Lydia purportedly
made two additional filings: a motion requesting appointment of counsel, (ECF No. 2),
and a request for leave to allow Thomas, Jr. to make all legal and litigation decisions
pertaining to the case, (ECF No. 3). The Court denied Lydia’s request to appoint her
counsel, see (ECF No. 10), and has not granted Lydia’s request to permit Thomas, Jr. to
file on her behalf.
The Defendants moved to dismiss Lydia’s Complaint on February 6, 2017. (ECF
No. 5.) Lydia did not respond to the motion. In considering the Defendants’ motion, the
Court reviewed Thomas, Jr.’s prior suit and Lydia’s Complaint in the present case.
Attached to the Complaint in this case is the same Participant Election Form the Court
noted in Thomas, Jr.’s 2014 suit. See (Compl., at App. A). The form bears the identical,
handwritten date of May 5, 1999, the same annuity option selection and other
markings. See (id.) This time, however, the form also conspicuously bears Lydia
Robinson’s signature. See (id.)
On April 7, 2017, the Court issued an order for Lydia and Thomas, Jr. to show
cause why sanctions should not be imposed under either Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure or the Court’s inherent powers. (ECF No. 10.) The Order stated that
the Court would consider monetary sanctions as well as the sanction of dismissal with
prejudice and scheduled the hearing for May 8, 2017. (Id.) Lydia contacted chambers
for the first time on the morning of May 8 to request that the hearing be rescheduled
because it was difficult for her to get to the courthouse. The Court had already
arranged for Thomas, Jr. to appear via videoconference from SCI-Graterford, so it
declined to reschedule.1 Lydia later called chambers again, this time stating that she
needed an attorney.
Lydia did not attend the hearing that afternoon. Thomas, Jr., appearing via
videoconference from prison, explained that he wrote the Complaint and signed it on
Lydia’s behalf after she approved it. (Hr’g Tr., at 5:9–11.) Lydia, however, personally
filed the Complaint with the Court. See (id. at 15:3–9.) Thomas, Jr. also explained that
Robinson, Jr. is currently serving life in prison for first-degree murder. See Robinson v. Pa.
Dep’t of Corrs., No. 03-5180, 2007 WL 210096, at 1 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2007); Com. v. Robinson, No
3614-2013, 2014 WL 10753773 (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 1, 2014).
he made the subsequent filings in the case, including the request for appointment of
counsel.2 (Id. at 5:21–24.)
The Court then questioned Thomas, Jr. about the Participant Election Form
attached to Lydia’s Complaint. (Id. at 8:2–7.) He explained that the Participant
Election Form attached to his copy of the Complaint was unsigned. (Id. at 8:8–17.)
Defense counsel, also present at the hearing, confirmed that the Participant Election
Form attached to his copy of the Complaint was also unsigned. (Id. at 8:19–9:3.) Lydia
apparently only signed the copy of the form filed with the Court. Thomas, Jr. was
uncertain as to why she may have done so. See (id. at 11:6–9).
In light of the facts adduced at the hearing, the Court declines to sanction Lydia
for her conduct in this case. Before sanctioning a party, the Court must consider six
factors: (1) the extent of the party’s personal responsibility; (2) prejudice to the
adversary and damage to the integrity of the federal courts; (3) a history of dilatoriness
on the part of the party; (4) whether the conduct was willful or in bad faith; (5)
effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal; and (6) the merits of the claim or
defense. See Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 747 F.2d 863, 868 (3d Cir. 1984); In
re Theokary, 468 B.R. 729, 750 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (explaining that where the conduct at
issue is fraud upon the court, “‘prejudice’ encompasses not only the prejudice to the
litigants but also the impact on the judicial system and the threat to the integrity of the
courts” (quoting Derzack v. Cty. of Allegheny, 173 F.R.D. 400, 414 (W.D. Pa. 1996))).
The Clerk of Court’s office received the request for the appointment of counsel, the request
for leave, and the motion to stay proceedings in envelopes bearing Thomas, Jr.’s prison return
address. See (ECF Nos. 2, 3 & 7).
These factors are not a checklist but rather a balancing test. Bad faith, however,
is “almost always” necessary (though not sufficient) to sanction a party. Spear v.
Comm’r, 41 F.3d 103, 111–12 (3d Cir. 1994). It is therefore sensible and practical to
treat the question of bad faith as a threshold inquiry.
At the show cause hearing, Thomas, Jr. candidly testified that he prepared the
Complaint and Lydia reviewed it. (Hr’g Tr., at 14:1–15.) He also stated that he left
copies of the Complaint in Lydia’s care so that she could file it with the Court. (Id. at
15:3–9.) Thomas, Jr. believed Lydia must have signed the attached Participant
Election Form before filing the Complaint with the Court. See (id. at 11:6–9). Defense
counsel’s statement that the copy of the Complaint served upon his client was unsigned
seems to corroborate Thomas, Jr.’s assumption. (Id. at 8:19–9:3.)
The sanction of dismissal with prejudice should be reserved for only rare cases.
See Spear, 41 F.3d at 112 (citing Hicks v. Feeney, 850 F.2d 152, 156 (3d Cir. 1988);
Donnelly v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 677 F.2d 339, 342–43 (3d Cir. 1982)).
Considering the evidence as a whole, Lydia may have mistakenly signed the
Participant Election Form when filing the Complaint with the Court. Whatever may
have happened, the evidence is insufficient to establish that Lydia acted in bad faith
when signing the Participant Election Form.
Lydia’s Complaint must nevertheless be dismissed. As Thomas, Jr. noted at the
hearing, he has pursued this case and made several filings with the Court on Lydia’s
behalf. See (id. at 5:21–3). He does not dispute that he has represented Lydia to this
point. Instead, he contends that he is permitted to do so based on two documents: the
assignment of power of attorney from Lydia to Thomas, Jr., (ECF No. 1, at App. B), and
the request for leave to allow Thomas, Jr. “to make all legal and litigation decisions
pertaining to this case on her behalf.” (ECF No. 3.) The request for leave also purports
to grant Thomas, Jr. the “authority to pursue, and obtain her late husband’s pension
benefits on her behalf, including litigation.” (Id. ¶ 1.) Based on these forms, Thomas,
Jr. has pursued this case on Lydia’s behalf. See, e.g., (Hr’g Tr., at 4:8–9).
Power of attorney confers the authority to make certain legal decisions on behalf
of another. Cf. 20 PA. C.S.A. §§ 5601–14. It does not, however, authorize the holder to
act as an attorney in court. See, e.g., Itiowe v. Robert Wood Johnson Univ. Hosp.
Hamilton, 556 F. App’x 125, 125 (3d Cir. 2014) (“[A] party may not represent another
pro se” even where purportedly authorized by a power of attorney); Williams v. United
States, 477 F. App’x 9, 11 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (“Faison Williams’s power of
attorney for her father may confer certain decision-making authority under state law,
but it does not permit her to represent him pro se in federal court.”); Estate of Keatinge
v. Biddle, 316 F.3d 7, 14 (1st Cir. 2002) (“[T]he holder of a power of attorney is not
authorized to appear pro se on behalf of the grantor.”); Osei-Afriyie ex rel Osei-Afriyie v.
Med. Coll. of Pa., 937 F.2d 876, 882–83 (3d Cir. 1991); Yoder v. Macmain Law Grp.,
LLC, No. 16-5221, 2016 WL 6519101, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 1, 2016) (“[A] power of
attorney does not, in fact, allow a non-attorney to represent others in federal court.”
(citing Osei-Afriyie, 937 F.2d at 882–83)). Nor does Lydia’s purported delegation of
legal rights to Thomas, Jr. allow him to pursue the case on her behalf. For one, the
Court never granted the request for leave. Even if it had, doing so would be
impermissible under the cases cited above.
If Lydia wishes to pursue this claim, she may do so on her own or through
counsel. But those are her only options to proceed in federal court.3 Williams, 477 F.
App’x at 10–11 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1654). While this limitation may create difficulties
for litigants like Lydia, it “is a venerable common law rule” which the Court cannot
ignore. Collinsgru v. Palmyra Bd. of Educ., 161 F.3d 225, 232 (3d Cir. 1998); cf. also
Afriyie, 937 F.2d at 882–83 (barring a non-attorney parent from representing her child
pro se in federal court).
If Lydia cannot secure counsel, she is free to refile her Complaint and pursue her
legal claims on her own. The right of self-representation dates to the Judiciary Act of
1789 and is codified today at 28 U.S.C. § 1654. See 28 U.S.C. § 1654; Greene v. Frost
Brown Todd, LLC, No. 1843740, at *1, ___ F.3d ___ (6th Cir. 2017); Leyfert v. Com. of
Pa. House of Representatives, No. 05-4700, 2005 WL 3433995, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 13,
2005) (noting that “[t]he right of citizens to represent themselves in court dates back to
the founding of this country”). But they very term pro se is instructive; it informs that
a party may appear for one’s self. See pro se, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (10th ed. 2009)
(emphasis added). “[A] person may not appear on another person’s behalf in the other’s
cause.” Leyfert, 2005 WL 3433995, at *2 (quoting Iannaccone v. Law, 142 F.3d 553, at
558 (2d Cir. 1998)).
Because Lydia proceeded otherwise, the Court cannot reach the merits of her
claim. Cf. Williams, 477 F. App’x at 11 (“The District Court should not have reached
Thomas, Jr. previously submitted a motion for appointment of counsel under 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915. (ECF No. 2.) The Court denied that motion, however, because on its face § 1915 addresses
only “proceedings in forma pauperis,” and is therefore not a catchall provision to appoint counsel to
pro se litigants. See, e.g., Stewart v. Pa. Dep’t of Corrs., No. 13- 0246, 2014 WL 7157363, at *11 n.6
(W.D. Pa. Dec. 15, 2014) (“28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) is not applicable because Plaintiff is not proceeding
in forma pauperis in this litigation.”); see also (ECF No. 1) (indicating Robinson paid the Court’s
$400 filing fee).
the merits of [Williams’s] father’s claim in the absence of proper representation.” (citing
Osei-Afriyie, 937 F.2d at 883)). The Court will therefore dismiss her Complaint without
prejudice. Cf. Johnson v. City of Philadelphia, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118906 (E.D. Pa.
Sept. 8, 2015) (dismissing complaint without prejudice where non-lawyer relied on
power of attorney to attempt to represent another person in court).
An appropriate Order follows.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Gerald J. Pappert
GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.
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