Roberts v. City of Phoenix – 7/1/2010

July 16, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Entry of Default Judgment is an Appropriate Sanction For Discovery Violations Committed in Bad Faith if the Party Itself is at Fault and the Court Has Considered, and Rejected, Lesser Sanctions.

In early 2001, a phoenix police officer stopped Randy Roberts moments after he left a well-known gay bar in Phoenix.  According to Mr. Roberts, the officer was aggressive and refused to tell him why he had been pulled over.  The officer arrested Mr. Roberts for failure to comply with his orders, but the charges were eventually dismissed.  Mr. Roberts then sued the City of Phoenix pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly violating his civil rights.  At trial, after the close of Mr. Roberts’ evidence, the City moved for judgment as a matter of law.  The trial court granted the motion.  In 2004, Mr. Roberts filed a motion for relief from the judgment based upon newly discovered documents that had not been disclosed by the City.  The trial court granted Roberts’ motion for relief and ordered the City to produce all files maintained by the City regarding Mr. Rodgers.  Over the course of the subsequent litigation, Mr. Roberts discovered on numerous occasions that the City had defied the court’s orders by failing to timely disclose relevant documents.  On several occasions, the judge admonished the City for its failures.  When the behavior continued, Mr. Roberts filed a motion for sanctions.  The trial court granted the motion and, as a sanction for the City’s actions, struck the City’s answer and entered default against it.  Following an evidentiary hearing on damages, the court awarded Mr. Roberts $10,000 in damages and the majority of his requested attorneys’ fees.  The City timely appealed. 

On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s entry of default judgment as a sanction for the City’s discovery violations.  Rule 37(b)(2) of the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “if a party . . . fails to obey an order to provide or permit discovery . . . the court in which the action is pending may make such orders in regard to the failure as are just.”  It specifically provides that the court may issue “an order striking our pleadings . . . or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party.”  Ariz. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2)(C).  Such an extreme sanction, however, should only be employed when the violation is the result of a willful disregard or discovery obligations or bad faith.  Moreover, a court may only impose default judgment as a sanction for discovery violations if the party itself is at fault and the court has considered, and rejected, lesser sanctions.  Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the record supported the trial court’s conclusion that the discovery violations were committed by the City itself and were made in bad faith.  Moreover, the trial court had considered lesser sanctions by repeatedly admonishing the City without otherwise imposing sanctions.  The Court of Appeal therefore held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in striking the City’s Answer as a sanction for its discovery violations.

The Court of Appeals also upheld the award of attorneys’ fees pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that “in any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [section 1983], the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonably attorney’s fee.”  The Court of Appeals rejected the City’s contention that an award of attorneys’ fees under § 1988 was inappropriate because there was no decision on the merits, concluding that the evidentiary hearing after the default judgment lead to a final judgment constituting a “decision on the merits.”  The Court also rejected the City’s contention that Mr. Roberts did not “prevail” because his damages were “minimal.”       

Judge Brown authored the opinion; Judges Irvine and Kessler concurred.