Federal Court Orders New Jersey’s Department of Human Services To Pay Attorneys’ Fees For Filing Frivolous Answer

Plaintiff, Disability Rights New Jersey (“DRNJ”) filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Newark, NJ against defendant Jennifer Velez in her capacity as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services (“DHS”). DHS is a state agency that provides medical care and assistance programs for economically disadvantaged or disabled residents of New Jersey. As part of its role in caring for individuals suffering from mental illness, DHS operates five inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and funds most of the cost of indigent inpatient care at six other psychiatric units and hospitals that are independently operated. Plaintiff, which represents psychiatric patients who either are or will be treated at New Jersey psychiatric hospitals, alleged that DHS routinely requires psychiatric patients to consume psychotropic drugs against their will in violation of New Jersey law, the New Jersey and Federal Constitutions, and the regular and prudent practice of medicine. Plaintiff also alleged that the process established in the state’s administrative code by which patients are involuntarily medicated is constitutionally infirm.

In June 2011, the court denied, in part, defendant’s motion to dismiss this action, holding that DRNJ had presented “a panoply of serious allegations concerning the practice of psychiatric medicine in New Jersey hospitals” including practices that plainly violate existing New Jersey law.

Thereafter, DHS filed an answer to plaintiff’s complaint containing fifty (50) affirmative defenses, many of which were boilerplate, inapplicable, and/or duplicative. After giving defendant an opportunity to correct the answer, plaintiff filed a motion asking the federal court to strike dozens of the improper defenses. The court found that the defenses were all highly repetitive, contained almost no factual specificity, and appeared to have no application to the claims presented by plaintiff in its complaint. For those reasons, the court granted plaintiff’s motion.

Plaintiff then requested that it be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in filing the motion. Plaintiff contended that defendant’s submission of dozens of frivolous defenses, as well as her failure to withdraw those defenses without the intervention of the Court make the imposition of reasonable attorneys’ fees proper.

The court agreed. The court found that “federal courts have inherent power to assess attorney’s fees as a sanction for frivolous or vexatious conduct … .The latent threat of monetary sanctions for bad behavior is designed to prevent needless and costly motion practice and to mandate some bare minimum of intellectual honesty with respect to pleadings and arguments that counsel submit to the court.” With regard to DHS’ answer, the court held,

Defendant’s answer is objectively improper as originally filed. After receiving it, Plaintiff provided Defendant with a clear opportunity to correct its pleading without the need for judicial intervention. The instant motion, with its attendant expenses, is entirely the result of Defendant’s decision to cling to numerous frivolous defenses with no possible application to the case at bar. Plaintiff’s motion should not have been required, and an imposition of fees is proper.

The case is annexed here – Disability Rights New Jersey v. Velez