Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 provides that a district court may sanction attorneys or parties who submit pleadings for an improper purpose or that contain frivolous arguments or arguments that have no evidentiary support.
Rule 11. Signing of Pleadings, Motions, and Other Papers; Representations to Court; Sanctions
(a) Signature. Every pleading, written motion, and other paper shall be signed by at least one attorney of record in the attorney's individual name, or, if the party is not represented by an attorney, shall be signed by the party. Each paper shall state the signer's address and telephone number, if any. Except when otherwise specifically provided by rule or statute, pleadings need not be verified or accompanied by affidavit. An unsigned paper shall be stricken unless omission of the signature is corrected promptly after being called to the attention of the attorney or party.
(b) Representations to the Court. By presenting to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating) a pleading, written motion, or other paper, an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the person's knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,-
(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation;
(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;
(3) the allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and
(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.
(c) Sanctions. If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that subdivision (b) has been violated, the court may, subject to the conditions stated below, impose an appropriate sanction upon the attorneys, law firms, or parties that have violated subdivision (b) or are responsible for the violation. (1) How Initiated.
(A) By Motion. A motion for sanctions under this rule shall be made separately from other motions or requests and shall describe the specific conduct alleged to violate subdivision (b). It shall be served as provided in Rule 5, but shall not be filed with or presented to the court unless, within 21 days after service of the motion (or such other period as the court may prescribe), the challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, allegation, or denial is not withdrawn or appropriately corrected. If warranted, the court may award to the party prevailing on the motion the reasonable expenses and attorney's fees incurred in presenting or opposing the motion. Absent exceptional circumstances, a law firm shall be held jointly responsible for violations committed by its partners, associates, and employees.
(B) On Court's Initiative. On its own initiative, the court may enter an order describing the specific conduct that appears to violate subdivision (b) and directing an attorney, law firm, or party to show cause why it has not violated subdivision (b) with respect thereto.
(2) Nature of Sanction; Limitations. A sanction imposed for violation of this rule shall be limited to what is sufficient to deter repetition of such conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated. Subject to the limitations in subparagraphs (A) and (B), the sanction may consist of, or include, directives of a nonmonetary nature, an order to pay a penalty into court, or, if imposed on motion and warranted for effective deterrence, an order directing payment to the movant of some or all of the reasonable attorneys' fees and other expenses incurred as a direct result of the violation. (A) Monetary sanctions may not be awarded against a represented party for a violation of subdivision (b)(2). (B) Monetary sanctions may not be awarded on the court's initiative unless the court issues its order to show cause before a voluntary dismissal or settlement of the claims made by or against the party which is, or whose attorneys are, to be sanctioned.
(3) Order. When imposing sanctions, the court shall describe the conduct determined to constitute a violation of this rule and explain the basis for the sanction imposed.
(d) Inapplicability to Discovery. Subdivisions (a) through (c) of this rule do not apply to disclosures and discovery requests, responses, objections, and motions that are subject to the provisions of Rules 26 through 37.
Rule 11 was amended effective December 31, 1993. The prior version provides in pertinent part:
Every pleading, motion, and other paper of a party represented by an attorney shall be signed by at least one attorney of record and in the attorney's individual name[.] . . . . [T]he signature of an attorney or party constitutes a certificate by the signer that the signer has read the pleading, motion or other paper; that to the best of the signer's knowledge, information and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law, and that it is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation. . . . If a pleading, motion, or other paper is signed in violation of this rule, the court, upon motion or upon its own initiative, shall impose upon the person who signed it, a represented party or both, an appropriate sanction, which may include an order to pay the other party or parties the amount of the reasonable expenses incurred because of the filing of the pleading, motion, or other paper, including a reasonable attorney's fee.
Even if the district court finds evidence to be insufficient for purposes of summary judgment, that "does not mean that appellants' claims were factually unfounded for purposes of Rule 11." Stitt v. Williams, 919 F.2d 516, 527 (9th Cir. 1990).
A district court may impose monetary sanctions, in the form of attorneys' fees, upon plaintiffs who file Title VII claims that are "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." See EEOC v. Bruno's Restaurant, 13 F.3d 285, 287 (9th Cir. 1993) (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421-22 (1978)). However, "[b]ecause Congress intended to `promote the vigorous enforcement of the provisions of Title VII,' a district court must exercise caution in awarding fees to a prevailing defendant in order to avoid discouraging legitimate suits that may not be `airtight.' " Id. (quoting Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422); see also EEOC v. Consolidated Serv. Sys., 30 F.3d 58, 59 (7th Cir. 1994) (suggesting that the "frivolous" standard is much more stringent than merely "not substantially justified"). Courts must heed "the Supreme Court's warning in Christiansburg against the `temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation.' " Bruno's Restaurant, 13 F.3d at 290 (quoting Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22); see also Forsberg v. Pacific Northwest Bell Tel. Co., 840 F.2d 1409, 1422 (9th Cir. 1988) (applying the same "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation" standard to request for sanctions under Rule 11 and 42 U.S.C. S 2000e-5(k)).
Kizer v. Children's Learning Ctr., 962 F.2d 608, 613 (7th Cir. 1992) affirms a district court's decision not to impose Rule 11 sanctions on a plaintiff who had failed to make out a prima facie case under Title VII because the claim was not filed with improper motives or inadequate investigation.
Rule 11 sanctions are only available with regard to papers filed with the court, not attorney misconduct. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11; see also United Energy Owners Comm., Inc. v. United States Energy Management Systems, Inc., 837 F.2d 356, 364-65 (9th Cir. 1988). (Under pre-'93 rule)