Ruling today in a case that stemmed from the breakdown of a proposed settlement agreement among parties to the attempted sale of three Boston-area supermarkets, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) placed limits on a trial judge’s authority to impose sanctions on an attorney. In this case, Wong v. Luu & Others, the trial judge had ordered an attorney to pay nearly $240,000 in sanctions for his alleged role in causing talks on a settlement agreement to founder.
The Boston Bar Association (BBA) submitted an amicus brief arguing that, with no clear finding that the attorney had prejudiced the administration of justice, the judge did not have authority to sanction the attorney, and that the issue was more appropriate for review by the state’s Board of Bar Overseers (BBO), which handles charges of attorney misconduct. On these two points, the SJC agreed, saying, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants:
“[A] judge may … sanction an attorney with an assessment of attorney’s fees only if the attorney has engaged in misconduct that threatens the fair administration of justice and the sanction is necessary to preserve the judge’s authority to administer justice. Because we conclude that the judge abused his discretion … in this case, and that the attorney’s alleged misconduct was more appropriately addressed by a referral to the [BBO], we reverse the judge’s order imposing sanctions.”
The BBA’s brief was drafted by Debra Squires-Lee, a partner at Sherin and Lodgen LLP and Jessica Kelly, an associate at the firm. Commenting on the court’s ruiling, Squires-Lee, co-chair of the Professional Liability Committee of the BBA’s Litigation Section said, “We are pleased with the Court’s decision, which clarifies an ambiguity about the scope of a trial court’s inherent authority. This ruling is important to the bar and the public, because it reaffirms that attorneys appearing in the Commonwealth are not subject to discipline pursuant to the trial court’s inherent authority unless their conduct impeded the fair administration of justice.”
The BBA’s brief took no position on the underlying facts of the case, and the SJC’s ruling, while reversing the sanctions order, explicitly lets stand the trial judge’s referral of the matter to the BBO for its consideration.
The BBA’s Amicus Committee is chaired by Mark C. Fleming of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. The BBA’s policy for filing amicus briefs and procedures for submitting amicus brief requests are available here.