After he was arrested and later released without charge, Illinois resident Bruce Williams filed suit against four officers, alleging Fourth Amendment violations. According to Williams, the officers arrested him without probable cause and proceeded to assault him, causing facial scars that made it impossible for him to follow his vocation of cosmetologist/educator. Williams was allowed to proceed in forma pauperis and later retained attorney Garry Alonzo Payton on a contingent-fee basis.
Six months after the trial court’s deadline for the filing of a final pretrial order, and after repeated attempts to elicit a response from a draft pretrial order, the officers moved for sanctions. The trial court declined to dismiss the case, but refused to schedule a pretrial conference. Instead he ordered Williams and Payton to reimburse the legal expenses incurred in order to obtain a response to the draft order, approximately $9,000, within 30 days.
Williams unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a payment plan at a rate of $25 per month, unable to afford more on his $1,050 monthly salary. The officers rejected the plan and the 30-day deadline passed without payment. Though he acknowledged Williams’ poverty, the trial court dismissed the case for failure to pay the sanction.
Williams also complained to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, blaming Payton for the delay in responding to the pretrial order. The commission agreed and ordered Payton to pay the sanction and suspended him for 45 days.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals criticized the dismissal as a disproportionate response to the misdoing:
[Williams] was given 30 days; he sought 11,000. But the court was mistaken to term the plaintiff’s failure to pay ‘contumacious.’ No one doubts that he can’t afford to pay the monetary sanction. To ignore a party’s inability to pay a sanction could result in a disproportionate punishment–as this case illustrates.
Had the case been allowed to proceed to trial, the $10,000 settlement offered by the officers could have covered the sanction. The Seventh Circuit applauded the decision of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, noting that "Payton got off lightly. Ignoring the need to prepare a pretrial order was inexcusable. Ignoring the order to pay sanctions was worse; it was contempt of court." The Seventh Circuit reinstated Williams’ case and remanded it back to the trial court.
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