The Fourth Circuit today, in the case of In re Bees, reversed the trial court’s imposition of sanctions based on an attorney’s oral statements during a motion hearing. The Court held that Rule 11 does not extend to oral statements except in very limited circumstances.
The court said:
"Rule 11 . . . severely limits a court’s ability to sanction counsel for oral statements. It permits a court to impose sanctions only on the basis of a false, misleading, or otherwise improper ‘pleading, written motion, or other paper.’ Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b). Thus, as the Advisory Committee has explained, Rule 11 ‘applies only to assertions contained in papers filed with or submitted to the court.’ Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 advisory committee’s note (1993 Amendments, Subdivisions (b) and (c)). The rule ‘does not cover matters arising for the first time during oral presentations to the court, when counsel may make statements that would not have been made if there had been more time for study and reflection.’ Id. In sum, an oral statement may form a basis for Rule 11 sanctions only if it advocates a contention previously contained within a written submission."
The Court also reversed an entry of sanctions based on statements in briefs submitted by the government, finding that the admitted errors "were an inadvertent mistake, not a deliberate attempt to mislead or a failure to conduct a reasonable inquiry." The Court held that "an isolated, inadvertent error does not justify Rule 11 sanctions."