KNOLL v. CITY OF ALLENTOWN

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United States Court of Appeals,Third Circuit.

Tera KNOLL, Appellant v. CITY OF ALLENTOWN.

No. 12–1635.

Decided: February 21, 2013

Before HARDIMAN, and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges and STARK, District Judge.* Donald P. Russo, Bethlehem, PA, for Plaintiff–Appellant. Edward J. Easterly, Steven E. Hoffman, Esq., Tallman, Hudders & Sorrentino, Allentown, PA, for Defendant–Appellee.

OPINION OF THE COURT

In Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir.1984), we held that a district court must consider six factors before it may dismiss a case as a sanction before trial on the merits. This appeal requires us to decide whether Poulis applies in the post-trial context. We hold it does not.

I

In February 2008, Tera Knoll filed suit against the City of Allentown in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania following her termination from the City's Parks Department. Knoll alleged claims of gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. Cons.Stat. Ann. § 951 et seq. Allentown removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

After the District Court granted in part and denied in part Allentown's motion for summary judgment, a jury trial on the remaining claims commenced in June 2010. At the close of Knoll's case, the District Court granted in part Allentown's motion for judgment as a matter of law and dismissed Knoll's gender discrimination claim. The jury later returned a verdict in favor of Allentown on the harassment and retaliation claims.

On July 21, 2010, Knoll filed a motion for a new trial. On August 4, 2010, Allentown filed a response, arguing that the motion was meritless and also noting that Knoll had failed to comply with Eastern District of Pennsylvania Local Rule of Civil Procedure 7.1(e), which requires a litigant either to order a trial transcript or to file a verified motion showing good cause to be excused from that requirement within fourteen days of filing a post-trial motion. On September 9, 2010, the District Court dismissed Knoll's motion for a new trial for lack of prosecution, citing Knoll's noncompliance with Local Rule 7.1(e), as well as Knoll's failure to correct that noncompliance even after Allentown raised the issue in its response to the motion for a new trial. Knoll then filed a motion for reconsideration on September 17, 2010. On September 27, 2010, Allentown filed a response to the motion for reconsideration along with a motion for sanctions, arguing that Knoll's motion for a new trial and motion for reconsideration were frivolous. Knoll responded to the motion for sanctions on October 7, 2010.

On December 7, 2010, the District Court held a hearing on Allentown's motion for sanctions. On September 30, 2011, the District Court denied the motion for sanctions and issued a memorandum opinion. Therein, the District Court noted that it believed Knoll's motions were frivolous but declined to order sanctions both because Allentown did not comply with Rule 11's safe harbor provision, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(2), and because it was not convinced that Knoll's conduct was sanctionable under the law of this Court. On February 9, 2012, the District Court denied Knoll's motion for reconsideration. It found both that Knoll had failed to comply with Local Rule 7.1(e) and that her motion for a new trial was frivolous, citing the reasons it discussed in the memorandum opinion addressing Allentown's motion for sanctions.

II 1

Knoll appeals the District Court's dismissal of her motion for a new trial and subsequent denial of her motion for reconsideration. She argues that the District Court erred when it failed to consider the factors set forth in Poulis before dismissing and denying the motions, respectively, pursuant to Local Rule 7.1(e). Because we hold that review of the Poulis factors is not required when a district court dismisses a post-trial motion for noncompliance with procedural rules or court orders, we will affirm.

A

Both the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and a court's inherent authority to control its docket empower a district court to dismiss a case as a sanction for failure to follow procedural rules or court orders. See, e.g., Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A)(v); Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b); Link v. Wabash R.R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 629–30, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 8 L.Ed.2d 734 (1962). Nevertheless, because we recognized that “dismissals with prejudice ․ are drastic sanctions,” Poulis, 747 F.2d at 867, in Poulis we enumerated six factors2 a district court must consider before it dismisses a case pursuant to such authority. See id. at 868. We have required consideration of the Poulis factors when a district court dismisses a case pursuant to Rule 37(b) for failure to respond to discovery, e.g., United States v. $8,221,877.16 in U.S. Currency, 330 F.3d 141, 145, 161–62 (3d Cir.2003); Hicks v. Feeney, 850 F.2d 152, 155–56 (3d Cir.1988), when a district court dismisses a case pursuant to Rule 41(b) for failure to prosecute, e.g., Dunbar v. Triangle Lumber & Supply Co., 816 F.2d 126, 128–29 (3d Cir.1987), and when a district court enters a default judgment pursuant to Rule 55(b) as a sanction for failure to plead or otherwise defend, e.g., Comdyne I, Inc. v. Corbin, 908 F.2d 1142, 1148 (3d Cir.1990). In addition, we have required a Poulis analysis when a district court imposes sanctions that are tantamount to default judgment because they inevitably lead to liability for one party. E.g., Ali v. Sims, 788 F.2d 954, 957 (3d Cir.1986).

Our application of Poulis in those contexts comports with the underlying concern Poulis sought to address, namely that dismissal as a sanction before adjudication of the merits deprives a party of her day in court. This concern resonates throughout our precedents. See, e.g., Adams v. Trs. of N.J. Brewery Emps. Pension Trust Fund, 29 F.3d 863, 870 (3d Cir.1994); Livera v. First Nat'l State Bank of N.J., 879 F.2d 1186, 1194 (3d Cir.1989); Scarborough v. Eubanks, 747 F.2d 871, 875 (3d Cir.1984); cf. Fleisher v. Standard Ins. Co., 679 F.3d 116, 131 (3d Cir.2012) (Garth, J., dissenting) (citing the Poulis test as an example of the “length to which we have gone in preserving cases for a merits determination”).

Likewise, the fact that we extended Poulis beyond cases in which there was an explicit order of dismissal to those cases in which alternative sanctions were tantamount to dismissal highlights our primary concern: to preserve the ability of the parties to try their cases on the merits. Thus, when sanctions effectively dictate the result, Poulis applies. The converse is equally true; when sanctions do not preclude all claims or defenses such that a party still has her day in court, Poulis does not apply. Compare Ali, 788 F.2d at 957–58 (requiring consideration of the Poulis factors because the sanction of deeming certain material allegations of plaintiff's complaint admitted led inevitably to liability for the defendant and thus was tantamount to default judgment), with Hagans v. Henry Weber Aircraft Distribs., Inc., 852 F.2d 60, 66 (3d Cir.1988) (not requiring consideration of Poulis because, despite stiff sanctions, “plaintiffs in this case still may establish liability on at least some, if not all, of their theories․ Unlike the defendants in Ali, plaintiffs here will still have their day in court.”).

In this appeal, Knoll implicitly urges us to extend Poulis to the post-trial context. We decline to do so. The concern animating Poulis—that dismissal will deprive a party of her day in court and preclude review of potentially meritorious claims—does not apply in the post-trial context. After all, the parties have already received an adjudication on the merits. Furthermore, although we acknowledge that, for instance, a dismissal of a motion for a new trial due to noncompliance with a procedural rule may deprive a party of an adjudication of that particular motion before the district court, it does not deprive that party of further review of the claims of error presented in such a motion. Those claims, so long as they have been properly raised and preserved, would be ripe for review on appeal to our Court. See Hewlett v. Davis, 844 F.2d 109, 115 n. 3 (3d Cir.1988).

Moreover, in the post-trial context, other elements of sound judicial administration assume greater significance: the inherent authority of courts “to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases,” Link, 370 U.S. at 630–31, and the existence of a final judgment that may be appealed, see Fed. R.App. P. 4(a)(4) (discussing the effect of a post-trial motion on a notice of appeal).

Finally, although we are mindful that Poulis operates in some cases to protect innocent parties from bearing the consequences of their attorneys' mistakes, see Poulis, 747 F.2d at 868 (factors one and four), we also acknowledge that parties cannot always “avoid the consequences of the acts or omissions of this freely selected agent,” Link, 370 U.S. at 633–34. Indeed, the gravity of an attorney's errors in the post-trial context is mitigated because the parties have already received a merits determination on their claims and defenses. Furthermore, we are confident that our Court will ensure that claims of error made in post-trial motions will receive appropriate review on appeal even when the post-trial motion itself is dismissed without consideration of the Poulis factors.

For these reasons, we hold that a district court need not engage in a Poulis analysis when it dismisses a post-trial motion for noncompliance with procedural rules or court orders.

B

Although we hold that an analysis of the Poulis factors is not necessary in the post-trial context, we continue to adhere to the view that “[d]ismissal must be a sanction of last, not first, resort.” Poulis, 747 F.2d at 869. We review dismissal of a post-trial motion as a sanction for abuse of discretion. See Hewlett, 844 F.2d at 114.

In this case, we cannot say that the District Court abused its discretion in dismissing Knoll's motion for a new trial and denying her subsequent motion for reconsideration. First, the dismissal sanction was specifically authorized by Local Rule 7.1(e), the validity of which Knoll does not challenge. We have previously recognized that “local rules play ‘a vital role in the district courts' efforts to manage themselves and their dockets.’ “ Smith, 845 F.2d at 1184 (quoting Eash v. Riggins Trucking, Inc. ., 757 F.2d 557, 570 (3d Cir.1985)). They “facilitate the implementation of court policy, both by setting norms and putting the local bar on notice of their existence,” and “serve to impose uniformity on practice within a district.” Id.

Second, Knoll had ample time to comply with Local Rule 7.1(e). She was notified of her noncompliance by Allentown's response to her motion for a new trial on the fifteenth day after she filed the motion, and she still had not complied with the rule by the time the District Court dismissed the motion thirty-six days later. Indeed, in dismissing the motion, the District Court specifically noted the fact that “plaintiff did not order a transcript or file a verified motion showing good cause [to excuse that requirement] after the defendant cited the rule in its response to the motion for new trial .” Knoll's motion for reconsideration then remained pending for one year, four months, and twenty-three days before it was denied. At no point did Knoll comply with the rule or even address why she had not complied. Given Knoll's inaction, the District Court was well within its discretion to dismiss the motions.

III

In an act of apparent desperation, Knoll accuses the learned trial judge of bias. She points to two comments made in the District Court opinion denying Allentown's motion for sanctions as evidence of this bias: the opinion calls Knoll's case a “silly case” and characterizes her motion for a new trial as “patently frivolous.” Knoll v. City of Allentown, 2011 WL 4528336, at *1–2 (E.D.Pa. Sept.30, 2011).

These comments are patently insufficient to support a claim of bias. “[O]pinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings, or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible.” Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 555, 114 S.Ct. 1147, 127 L.Ed.2d 474 (1994). Knoll has failed to demonstrate the “deep-seated favoritism or antagonism” that is required by Liteky. The District Court's comments do not arise from an extrajudicial source and are “assessments relevant to the case, whether they are correct or not.” United States v. Wecht, 484 F.3d 194, 220 (3d Cir.2007). As such, they do not demonstrate bias, even if they are “expressions of impatience, dissatisfaction, [or] annoyance.” Liteky, 510 U.S. at 555; see also Wecht, 484 F.3d at 220–21.

IV

For the reasons stated, we hold that a district court is not required to engage in an analysis of the Poulis factors before it dismisses a post-trial motion for noncompliance with procedural rules or court orders. We will therefore affirm.

HARDIMAN, Circuit Judge.

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