Sanctions Other Than Contempt

Long recognized by the courts as inherent powers are those authorities that are necessary to the administration of the judicial system itself, of which the contempt power just discussed is only the most controversial.251 Courts, as elements of an independent and coequal branch of government, once they are created and their jurisdiction established, have the authority to do what courts have traditionally done in order to accomplish their assigned tasks.252 Of course, these inherent powers may be limited by statutes and by rules,253 but, just as noted above in the discussion of the same issue with respect to contempt, the Court asserts both the power to act in areas not covered by statutes and rules and the power to act unless Congress has not only provided regulation of the exercise of the power, but also has unmistakably enunciated its intention to limit the courts’ inherent powers.254

Thus, in Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., the Court upheld the imposition of monetary sanctions against a litigant and his attorney for bad-faith litigation conduct in a diversity case. Some of the conduct was covered by a federal statute and several sanction provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but some was not, and the Court held that, absent a showing that Congress had intended to limit the courts, they could use their inherent powers to impose sanctions for the entire course of conduct, including shifting attorneys’ fees, which is ordinarily against the common-law American rule.255 Nonetheless, the Court has clarified that because a court’s order directing a sanctioned litigant to reimburse the legal fees and costs incurred by the wronged party as a result of bad faith conduct is compensatory, rather than punitive, in nature, a fee award may go no further than to redress the wronged party “for losses sustained.”256 In another case, a party failed to comply with discovery orders and a court order concerning a schedule for filing briefs. The Supreme Court held that the attorneys’ fees statute did not allow assessment of such fees in that situation, but it remanded for consideration of sanctions under both a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure and the trial court’s inherent powers, subject to a finding of bad faith.257 But bad faith is not always required for the exercise of some inherent powers. Thus, courts may dismiss an action for an unexplained failure of the moving party to prosecute it.258

Footnotes

251
“Certain implied powers must necessarily result to our courts of justice, from the nature of their institution. . . . To fine for contempt, imprison for contumacy, enforce the observance of order, &c., are powers which cannot be dispensed with in a court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all others: and so far our courts, no doubt, possess powers not immediately derived from statute . . . .” United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 32, 34 (1812). [Back to text]
252
See Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 204, 227 (1821); Ex parte Robinson, 86 U.S. (19 Wall.) 505, 510 (1874); Link v. Wabash R.R., 370 U.S. 626, 630–631 (1962); Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 43–46 (1991); and id. at 58 (Justice Scalia dissenting), 60, 62–67 (Justice Kennedy dissenting). [Back to text]
253
Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. at 47. [Back to text]
254
Id. at 46–51. [Back to text]
255
Id. at 49–51. [Back to text]
256
See Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 581 U.S. ___, No. 15–1406, slip op. at 5–6 (2017) (holding that a court, “when using its inherent sanctioning authority,” must “establish a causal link—between the litigant’s misbehavior and legal fees paid by the opposing party”). [Back to text]
257
Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 764 (1980). [Back to text]
258
Link v. Wabash R.R., 370 U.S. 626 (1962). [Back to text]