Motion Practice, Jerry Springer-Style: When Zealous Advocacy Becomes Unprofessional Conduct

Rumberger | Kirk

Rumberger | Kirk

A recent order by Senior U.S. District Judge Donald L. Graham provides a strong reminder to Florida attorneys to remember their duties under the Florida Bar Oath of Admission and the Florida Bar’s Creed of Professionalism when sparring with opposing counsel in legal filings. 

In Weigand, et al. v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (1:19-cv-25100 (S.D. Fla. 2019)), the plaintiffs sued over the death of an 18-month old child who fell through an open cruise ship window.  In briefing the court on motions for summary judgment and a motion for sanctions, the parties’ counsel included inflammatory language that Judge Graham considered both inappropriate and unprofessional.  Plaintiffs’ counsel lodged accusations of defendant’s “lying to authorities,” “attempting to deceive this Honorable Court, “corporate misconduct [which] appears to know no bounds,” and “merciless efforts to frame an innocent man and intentionally destroy evidence.”  Not to be outdone, defendant’s counsel described one of plaintiffs’ motions as “a salacious, unfounded and libelous hit piece,” and asserted that “[i]t strains credulity that Plaintiffs’ counsel filed this motion out of a genuine belief that meritorious grounds exist to support summary judgment.”  

Judge Graham was not pleased.  On April 21, 2021,  he entered an order describing the filings as “read[ing] like a fictional novel or a script from a tabloid Jerry Springer television show.”  Judge Graham struck the filings and ordered them refiled in five days and with the unprofessional language removed.  In this order, Judge Graham referred to the duties of attorneys as set forth in the Florida Bar Oath of Admission and the Florida Bar’s Creed of Professionalism. The Creed states, in part, “I will abstain from all rude, disruptive, and abusive behavior and will at all times act with dignity, decency, and courtesy.”  Judge Graham emphasized that both the Oath and the Creed do not merely express ideals and that Florida attorneys should ensure that their conduct honors their oaths and  the standards set forth in the Creed of Professionalism.

For added emphasis, Judge Graham also ordered the attorneys to submit, in ten days’ time, filings “discussing whether this Court should refer this matter to [the court’s] Committee on Attorney Admissions, Peer Review and Attorney Grievance.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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