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Poulis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.

November 5, 1984

LEFTERI POULIS AND ATHENA POULIS, HIS WIFE, APPELLANTS
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh)

Author: Sloviter

Before: GIBBONS, SLOVITER, Circuit Judges, and BISSELL, District Judge*fn*

Opinion OFTHE COURT

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

This appeal, as well as another decided today involving the same attorney and district court judge, Scarborough v. Eubanks, No. 83-5601, is brought from a final order dismissing the complaint with prejudice due to counsel's failure to meet court-imposed deadlines and other procedural requisites.

I.

Background

Lefteri and Athena Poulis filed suit against State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (State Farm) in November 1981, in the court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania, to recover under an insurance policy after fire damaged their home. State Farm removed the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania based on diversity of citizenship. In its answer, it denied liability, asserting that plaintiffs had intentionally caused the fire, had concealed and misrepresented information, and had not filed their action in time.

On March 12, 1982, the district court ordered that discovery would close June 14, 1982; that plaintiffs' pre-trial statement would be due July 5; and that defendant's statement would be due July 26. A pre-trial conference was set for August 13. The docket reveals no action by plaintiffs seeking discovery. On April 15, State Farm filed notice of service of interrogatories on plaintiffs. No answers to these interrogatories were or have ever been filed, and plaintiffs did not file their pre-trial statement by July 5 as required. Therefore defendant filed its pre-trial statement first, on July 28, together with a motion to compel answers to interrogatories. A member of the district judge's staff advised plaintiffs' counsel, George Retos, Jr., that the statement was overdue and Retos promised to submit a statement by the next day. He neither did so nor requested any extension. On August 5 the district court, sua sponte, dismissed the case with prejudice for plaintiffs' failure to comply with the orders to file the pre-trial statement.

Retos filed a pre-trial statement on August 9, together with a motion under Rule 60(b) to reconsider and set aside the dismissal, alleging that an illness prevented him from working between July 6 through July 17; that other attorneys could not have taken over because only Retos spoke Greek and could communicate with plaintiff Lefteri Poulis; that Retos' pregnant wife went into false labor on July 29 and 30, and that he had "inadvertently set aside the required work for the instant case on July 29, 1982, due to his concern for his wife" and was "rendered unable to prepare the necessary Pre-Trial Statement;" that on his return to work other tasks had backlogged; and that although he had dictated a statement on August 4, it had been mailed on August 6 when it was typed and ready.

The district court denied reconsideration. On appeal, this court vacated the order of dismissal. Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 714 F.2d 124 (3d Cir. 1983) (Poulis I) (per curiam) (unreported). We noted there was "no allegation that plaintiffs, as distinguished from their counsel, were in any way responsible for the failure to comply with the court's order." We recognized that in National Hockey League v. Metropolitan Hockey Club, Inc., 427 U.S. 639, 49 L. Ed. 2d 747, 96 S. Ct. 2778 (1976), a dismissal was upheld where plaintiffs had acted in "flagrant bad faith" and counsel "had behaved with "callous disregard" of [his] responsibilities," id. at 643, but observed that "the case at hand is not as extreme."

We pointed out that in an earlier opinion, Donnelly v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 677 F.2d 339, 342 (3d Cir. 1982), we had stated that "dismissal is a drastic sanction and should be reserved for those cases where there is a clear record of delay or contumacious conduct by the plaintiff." However, because Retos' excuses failed to account for many days on which a pre-trial statement could have been filed, we observed that some sanction was "amply justified." Accordingly, we vacated the dismissal and remanded to permit the district court to consider alternatives to dismissal, stating, "Alternatives are particularly appropriate when the plaintiff has not personally contributed to the delinquency."

On remand, the district court ordered the parties to file briefs on appropriate alternative sanctions. Plaintiffs' brief, filed four days late, stated that such sanctions would be costs, attorneys' fees, and monetary penalties imposed on him but argued that "since the Third Circuit has specifically assessed the costs of the appeal in this matter against plaintiffs' counsel personally, it has ruled on the sanctions which are to be applied in the instant matter [and] alternative sanctions are now inappropriate." App. at 10-11.

In its brief State Farm took a more reasonable position. It noted that "in this case the defendant has been more prejudiced by plaintiffs' failure to answer interrogatories then [sic] by its counsel's failure to file the Pre-Trial Statement on time." App. at 16. State Farm urged the court to reopen discovery so that it could "have the opportunity to examine plaintiffs' Answers to Interrogatories, conduct further investigation if necessary, and depose the plaintiffs or other witnesses known to plaintiffs if such action is deemed necessary and appropriate." App. at 15. State Farm suggested, "If discovery is reopened, State Farm believes there would be no need to utilize the somewhat harsh remedy of limiting or restricting plaintiffs' witnesses at trial." App. at 16 (emphasis added). In light of this court's order, State Farm ...


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