Circuit Lifts Money Sanction on Suspended Attorney
An embattled civil rights attorney with a record of misconduct has persuaded a federal appellate court that a trial judge applied the wrong standard in sanctioning her for one of her transgressions.
Christina Agola of Rochester remains suspended from both state and federal practice (NYLJ, Sept. 17), but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Wednesday overturned a sanction imposed on her by Western District Judge Charles Siragusa (See Profile).
The court said Siragusa wrongly held Agola to an objective reasonableness standard rather than a bad faith standard in connection with her conduct in an employment discrimination case.
Records show that Agola represented Abidan Muhammad, who was fired from his job at a Walmart store in Rochester after getting into an argument with managers.
The same night that Muhammad was fired, a female colleague was involved in an unrelated disturbance at the store, but Walmart determined that she was a domestic violence victim and did not fire her.
Muhammad filed a pro se complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming he was fired on the basis of age and disability, leaving the "sex discrimination" portion of the complaint form blank. He subsequently retained Agola and filed the instant lawsuit, Muhammad v. Walmart Stores East, 12-4773-cv.
Agola never amended the complaint to include a gender discrimination claim, but attempted to assert that cause of action, arguing that her client had implicitly alleged gender bias in his pro se complaint and in his responses at a deposition. Siragusa, "understandably displeased by Agola's last-minute introduction of an unpled gender-discrimination claim," imposed a $7,500 Rule 11 sanction, the circuit said.
In a per curiam decision, the circuit said that under Rule 11 courts can sanction an attorney, typically on a motion of opposing counsel, for making frivolous arguments or misrepresenting facts.
Usually, the court said, the accused attorney is afforded 21 days to correct the alleged misconduct before sanctions can be imposed.
However, courts may impose sua sponte sanctions in line with the Second Circuit's 2003 opinion in In re Pennie & Edmonds, 323 F.3d 86. In that decision, the court likened a sua sponte sanction to an order of contempt and held judges to a subjective bad faith standing.