Davis, Chief Justice, dissenting:
This Court serves as a lighthouse
whose beacon guides the bench and bar by clarifying the proper procedures
to follow in civil proceedings prosecuted in the courts of this State. Rather
than shining brightly and providing clear guidance on the Rule 11 issue presented
by this appeal, however, the majority of my colleagues have allowed this flame
to flicker. In the water's murky darkness, schools of attorneys and litigants
may now prey on unsuspecting experts, while parties who rely on expert testimony
watch helplessly from the shore. Although the Court attempts to conceal the
impact of its decision by rendering it as a per curiam opinion,
(See footnote 1)
the majority's decision nevertheless will have future consequences so far-reaching as to virtually eradicate the term frivolous
lawsuit from this State's legal vocabulary while effectively precluding
the pursuit of lawsuits designed to redress real and compensable injuries.
The immediate impact of the majority's decision, though, is just as grave.
By rendering its ruling, the majority has not only missed the boat by failing
to appreciate the frivolity of the appellant's lawsuit; it simultaneously
has stirred up a frightful storm at sea by allowing a criminal defendant to
sue the State's expert witnesses. For the reasons set forth below, I dissent.
'Because of their
very potency, . . . [sanction] powers must be exercised with restraint and discretion. A primary aspect of . . . [a circuit
court's] discretion is the ability to fashion an appropriate sanction
for conduct which abuses the judicial process.' Cox v. State,
194 W. Va. 210, 218, 460 S.E.2d 25, 33 (1995) (per curiam) (Cleckley,
J., concurring) (quoting Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44-45,
111 S. Ct. 2123, 2132-33, 115 L. Ed. 2d 27, 45 (1991) (citation omitted; emphasis
added)). To guide circuit courts' exercise of such discretion, this Court
has established guidelines to be followed when frivolous filings suggest that
the imposition of sanctions may be warranted.
Although Rule 11 . . . of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure do[es] not formally require any particular procedure, before issuing a sanction, a court must ensure it has an adequate foundation either pursuant to the rules or by virtue of its inherent powers to exercise its authority. The Due Process Clause of Section 10 of Article III of the West Virginia Constitution requires that there exist a relationship between the sanctioned party's misconduct and the matters in controversy such that the transgression threatens to interfere with the rightful decision of the case. Thus, a court must ensure any sanction imposed is fashioned to address the identified harm caused by the party's misconduct.
Syl. pt. 1, Bartles v. Hinkle, 196 W. Va. 381, 472 S.E.2d 827.
In formulating the appropriate sanction, a court shall be guided by equitable principles. Initially, the court must identify the alleged wrongful conduct and determine if it warrants a sanction. The court must explain its reasons clearly on the record if it decides a sanction is appropriate. To determine what will constitute an appropriate sanction, the court may consider the seriousness of the conduct, the impact the conduct had in the case and in the administration of justice, any mitigating circumstances, and whether the conduct was an isolated occurrence or was a pattern of wrongdoing throughout the case.
Syl. pt. 2, id.
Applying the above-cited
authorities, my colleagues have determined that Ms. Davis' lawsuit was not
frivolous, and, accordingly, that sanctions were not warranted. Based upon
the analysis which follows, however, I disagree with the majority's conclusion
that the appellant advanced a nonfrivolous argument for the extension and/or
modification of existing law. Instead, I agree with the circuit court's ruling
that Ms. Davis' lawsuit was totally devoid of merit and concur with the sanctions
imposed by that court.
A. No Meritorious Argument Can Be Made to Permit a Criminal Defendant
to Sue a State's Expert
If one simply reads the majority opinion, without more, it seems that other jurisdictions have approved the type of lawsuit filed in this case. Consequently, it superficially seems that the majority opinion was correct in determining that a good faith basis existed for the filing of the lawsuit against the experts. Unfortunately, the majority opinion distorts the cases upon which it relies. In not one case cited by the majority opinion did a court permit a convicted criminal defendant to file a civil lawsuit against experts which testified on behalf of the prosecutor. In fact, none of the cases cited even addressed the issue.
1. James v. Brown.
The majority opinion first cites James v. Brown, 637 S.W.2d 914 (Tex.
1982) (per curiam). James involved a lawsuit filed by a plaintiff alleging,
among other things, malpractice against three psychiatrists who generated
a report that diagnosed the plaintiff as mentally ill. The report was used
by the plaintiff's children at a mental health proceeding in their unsuccessful
effort to have the plaintiff involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff's lawsuit, but the Supreme Court of
Texas reversed. Upholding the lawsuit, the Texas Supreme Court held that the
plaintiff was not prevented from recovering from the doctors for negligent
misdiagnosis-medical malpractice merely because their diagnoses were later communicated to a court in the due course of judicial proceedings.
James, 637 S.W.2d at 918. In addition, the James opinion referred
to a statute that permitted the plaintiff's lawsuit, holding that [t]he
plain implication of [the statute] is that persons acting in bad faith, unreasonably,
and negligently in connection with mental health proceedings are not free
from liability. Id.
The majority opinion cites
to James as supporting the proposition that a convicted criminal defendant
can bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for the prosecutor. However,
it is crystal clear that James never came close to the exact issue
before this Court. Rather, James related to a plaintiff's right to
file a lawsuit against psychiatrists who misdiagnosed the plaintiff's mental
2. Levine v. Wiss
& Co. Next, the majority cites Levine v. Wiss & Co.,
97 N.J. 242, 478 A.2d 397 (1984), which addressed
whether an accountant, selected by the litigants in a contested matrimonial case and appointed by the court to act as an impartial expert in rendering a binding valuation of a business asset for purposes of equitable distribution, should be held liable for negligence in deviating from accepted standards applicable to the accounting profession.
Levine, 97 N.J. at 244, 478 A.2d at 398. The defendants in Levine argued that because they had been appointed by the trial court and the litigants had agreed to be bound by their report, these factors elevated them beyond the status of accountants to the quasi-judicial role of 'arbitrators,' who would generally be shielded from private actions for damages brought by the parties to a given dispute. Levine, 97 N.J. at 247, 478 A.2d at 399. Nevertheless, the Levine court rejected the defendants' contention and held that the defendants did not remotely resemble arbitrators when they performed their assigned function, and, accordingly, they are not entitled to immunity from legal responsibility for any malfeasance. Levine, 97 N.J. at 251, 478 A.2d at 402 (citations omitted). The court in Levine found that the [d]efendants simply rendered a singular determination--a finding of fact by which the parties had agreed to be bound. Id.
The majority opinion in
Davis cites to Levine as supporting the proposition that a convicted
criminal defendant can file a civil lawsuit against experts who testify for
the prosecutor. However, it is clear that Levine never addressed that
exact issue. Levine was concerned with whether or not accountants
could use the immunity granted to arbitrators, in an effort to escape liability
for their negligence in valuing property on behalf of both parties in a divorce
3. Mattco Forge v.
Arthur Young & Co. The third case to which the majority opinion
cites is Mattco Forge, Inc. v. Arthur Young & Co., 6 Cal. Rptr.
2d 781, 5 Cal. App. 4th 392 (1992). In Mattco, the plaintiff brought
a lawsuit against accountants that the plaintiff had hired as experts in a prior civil lawsuit, alleging
that they had performed negligently. The trial court dismissed the action,
but the appellate court reversed and reinstated the plaintiff's case. In doing
so, the appellate court held that expert witness immunity does not exist
to protect one's own expert witnesses, but [is designed] to protect adverse
witnesses from suit by opposing parties after the lawsuit ends. Mattco,
6 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 789, 5 Cal. App. 4th at 405.
Erroneously, the majority
opinion cites Mattco as supporting the proposition that a convicted
criminal defendant can bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for
the prosecution. However, this issue was not before the appellate court in
Mattco. More importantly, Mattco referenced with approval a
prior decision of that court which expressly prohibited a criminal
defendant from filing a civil lawsuit against an expert who erroneously testified
to facts for the prosecutor. See Block v. Sacramento Clinical Labs,
Inc., 182 Cal. Rptr. 438, 131 Cal. App. 3d 386 (1982).
4. Murphy v. A.A.
Mathews. The majority opinion also cites Murphy v. A.A. Mathews,
841 S.W.2d 671 (Mo. 1992) (en banc). Murphy involved a lawsuit brought
by the plaintiff against an engineering expert, who had earlier been retained
by the plaintiff for an arbitration proceeding. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff
contended that the engineering expert had negligently performed work in the
earlier proceeding. The trial court dismissed the case, but the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed. In doing so, the Murphy
court held that we do not believe that [expert witness] immunity was
meant to or should apply to bar a suit against a privately retained professional
who negligently provides litigation support services. Murphy,
841 S.W.2d at 680 (footnote omitted).
The majority opinion cites
to Murphy as supporting the proposition that a convicted criminal defendant
can bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for the prosecution.
However, it is clear that Murphy never addressed that exact issue.
On the contrary, Murphy was concerned with whether a plaintiff could
sue an expert retained by the plaintiff for litigation purposes.
5. LLMD of Michigan,
Inc. v. Jackson-Cross Co. The majority opinion additionally relies
upon the decision in LLMD of Michigan, Inc. v. Jackson-Cross Co., 559
Pa. 297, 740 A.2d 186 (1999). LLMD brought a professional malpractice action
against a company it hired to provide expert services in a federal lawsuit
regarding lost profits. The trial court dismissed the case, but the Supreme
Court of Pennsylvania reversed. By so ruling, the Pennsylvania court held
that witness immunity did not preclude a party who retained an expert from
suing that expert when the allegations of negligence are not premised
on the substance of the expert's opinion . . . [but on] negligen[ce] in performing
the mathematical calculations required to determine lost profits.
LLMD, 559 Pa. at 306, 740 A.2d at 191.
The majority opinion cites
to LLMD as supporting the proposition that a convicted criminal defendant
can bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for the prosecution.
It is clear, however, that LLMD never addressed that exact issue.
LLMD was limited to the issue of whether or not a plaintiff could sue
its own expert retained for litigation purposes.
6. Marrogi v. Howard.
Lastly, the majority opinion cites to the decision in Marrogi v. Howard,
805 So. 2d 1118 (La. 2002). Marrogi involved a plaintiff who sued
a medical billing analyst. In that case, the plaintiff alleged that the analyst
breached its contract to provide medical billing, coding analysis and expert
testimony in connection with the plaintiff's prior litigation. The trial court
dismissed the action, but the Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed. Marrogi
accurately recognized that courts around the country have held that an
adverse expert witness [is] immune from a retaliation suit filed by the losing
party in the earlier litigation. Marrogi, 805 So. 2d at
1126. However, in reversing the trial court, Marrogi held that no
overarching public purpose is served by applying witness immunity to shield
a retained expert witness from a claim subsequently asserted by the party
who hired him when the claim alleges deficient performance of his professional
and contractual duties to provide litigation support services. Marrogi,
805 So. 2d at 1129.
Erroneously, the majority
opinion cites Marrogi as supporting the proposition that a convicted
criminal defendant could bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying
for the prosecution. Clearly, Marrogi never addressed that exact issue.
Marrogi was limited to the issue of whether or not a plaintiff could
sue its own expert witness that had been retained for litigation purposes.
In summary, the majority
opinion cites six cases allegedly supporting the proposition that a convicted
criminal defendant can bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for
the prosecutor. Yet, not one of these cited cases addresses the issue
of a litigant bringing a negligence lawsuit against an expert retained by
the opposing party in a prior case. With the exception of one case, James
v. Brown, all of the other cases relied upon by the majority opinion involved
lawsuits by plaintiffs who were suing their own experts retained in
(See footnote 2) Thus, the majority opinion has failed to
cite any judicial decision in the country that would allow a convicted
criminal defendant to bring a civil lawsuit against experts testifying for
the prosecution. Given this lack of authority, I find it impossible to accept
the majority's conclusion that Ms. Davis has asserted a nonfrivolous argument to establish a new cause of action in this State.
Aside from the six cases
cited by the majority to justify its decision, it is readily apparent that
no authority whatsoever, either judicial or statutory, supports Ms. Davis'
claims. As is evident from the decision in Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S.
325, 103 S. Ct. 1108, 75 L. Ed. 2d 96 (1983), the law in this country is well-settled
and quite clear: a convicted criminal defendant cannot bring a civil lawsuit
against witnesses testifying for the prosecutor on a theory of negligent testimony.
The decision in Briscoe involved a federal Civil Rights Act lawsuit
that was filed by convicted state defendants against state and local police
officers, seeking damages based on alleged giving of perjured testimony at
the defendants' criminal trials. The lower courts dismissed the action, and
the United States Supreme Court affirmed. In doing so, the Court said that
the doctrine of witness immunity was derived from the common law and is based
on the idea that the paths which lead to the ascertainment of truth
should be left as free and unobstructed as possible. Briscoe,
460 U.S. at 333, 103 S. Ct. at 1114, 75 L. Ed. 2d at 106 (internal citation
and quotations omitted). Briscoe followed the law in the nation and
held that because the statements were made in the courtroom, the witnesses
would receive absolute immunity for all statements that were relevant
to the judicial proceeding. Briscoe, 460 U.S. at 331, 103 S.
Ct. at 1113, 75 L. Ed. 2d at 105 (footnote omitted).
In addition to the common law
protection afforded all of the expert witnesses who testified for the State
in prosecuting Ms. Davis, those witnesses who testified as to the victim's cause
of death in the criminal case were protected from civil litigation by W. Va.
Code § 16-10-3 (1989) (Repl. Vol. 2001), which provides:
A physician or any other person authorized by law to determine death who makes such determination in accordance with section one [§ 16-10-1] of this article is not liable for damages in any civil action or subject to prosecution in any criminal proceeding for his acts or the acts of others based on that determination. Any person who acts in good faith in reliance on a determination of death is not liable for damages in any civil action or subject to prosecution in any criminal proceeding for such act.
It is patently obvious, then, that there is no authority to support the majority's conclusion that Ms. Davis' lawsuit constituted a good faith argument to extend the law.
B. No Existing Law Supports Ms. Davis' Lawsuit
Just as the cases relied upon by the majority fail to present a good faith, meritorious argument to extend existing law or to create a new cause of action, so, too, do the circumstances surrounding Ms. Davis' lawsuit preclude a finding that such claims are supported by existing law. During its consideration of Ms. Davis' suit against the State's expert witnesses, whose testimony contributed to her criminal conviction, (See footnote 3) the circuit court examined no less than seven legal theories and principles of law, all of which bar her cause of action.
First, the circuit court
determined that the experts retained by the State were protected by principles
of witness immunity. See Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 103
S. Ct. 1108, 75 L. Ed. 2d 96 (1983); Higgins v. Williams Pocahontas Coal
Co., 103 W. Va. 504, 138 S.E. 112 (1927). Next, the court ruled that
Ms. Davis' action was barred by the statute of limitations set forth in W. Va.
Code § 55-2-12 (1959) (Repl. Vol. 2000). The third ground relied upon
by the circuit court to dismiss Ms. Davis' complaint was its filing after
the expiration of the one year statute of limitations for libel or slander.
See W. Va. Code § 55-7-8a (1959) (Repl. Vol. 2000); Rodgers
v. Corporation of Harpers Ferry, 179 W. Va. 637, 640, 371 S.E.2d
358, 361 (1988). Additionally, the circuit court determined that Ms. Davis'
lawsuit was barred by collateral estoppel due to the final resolution of her
criminal conviction, upon which her civil lawsuit was based. See State
v. Davis, 205 W. Va. 569, 519 S.E.2d 852 (1999); Baber v. Fortner
by Poe, 186 W. Va. 413, 421, 412 S.E.2d 814, 822 (1991). The circuit
court also found that dismissal was appropriate because there is no
cause of action for deviation [from] the standard of care under the Medical Professional Liability Act . . . while testifying
in a criminal case. See W. Va. Code § 55-7B-4 (1986)
(Repl. Vol. 2000). A sixth basis for halting Ms. Davis' prosecution of her
claims addressed by the circuit court was its lack of personal jurisdiction
over defendant doctors Zitelli and Becker. See W. Va. Code §
56-3-33 (1997) (Supp. 2001). Finally, the court deemed Ms. Davis' lawsuit
to be improper based upon her failure to appeal the court's earlier ruling
dismissing her claims against the defendants and the tolling of the applicable
Although Judge Jolliffe's well-reasoned order most certainly satisfies the due process consideration with which Justice Cleckley was concerned in Bartles, (See footnote 4) the majority of the Court completely ignores this thorough analysis. Rather than dismissing the lower court's ruling, this Court should, at the very least, have heeded its own prior holding, which it quoted at length in its majority opinion, and accorded some modicum of discretion to the circuit court's decision to proclaim frivolous Ms. Davis' suit and impose appropriate sanctions. See Syl. pt. 1, in part, McDougal v. McCammon, 193 W. Va. 229, 455 S.E.2d 788 (1995) ([T]he West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure allocate significant discretion to the trial court in making . . . procedural rulings. . . . Absent a few exceptions, this Court will review . . . procedural rulings of the circuit court under an abuse of discretion standard.).
C. Ms. Davis' Lawsuit is Frivolous and Should Have Been Sanctioned Under Rule 11
Because of the absolute clarity of the law on this issue, I believe that the impact of the majority decision strips circuit courts of the authority to impose sanctions against parties filing frivolous lawsuits. I do not take this position lightly. Prior to this decision, our law was clear. Sanctions may be imposed against a party as the result of his or her vexatious, wanton, or oppressive assertion of a claim or defense that cannot be supported by a good faith argument for the application, extension, modification, or reversal of existing law. Syl., in part, Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. Canady, 175 W. Va. 249, 332 S.E.2d 262 (1985). See, e.g., Pritt v. Suzuki Motor Co., Ltd., 204 W. Va. 388, 513 S.E.2d 161 (1998) (per curiam) (affirming sanctions against plaintiff for filing a baseless lawsuit); Syl. pt. 4, in part, State ex rel. Roy Allen S. v. Stone, 196 W. Va. 624, 474 S.E.2d 554 (1996) (holding that a circuit court has discretion [under Rule 11] to impose attorney's fees on litigants who bring vexatious and groundless lawsuits). Additionally, this Court has held that [t]he filing of frivolous and harassing litigation can lead to disciplinary sanctions including disbarment[.] Syl. pt. 4, in part, Committee on Legal Ethics of the West Virginia State Bar v. Douglas, 179 W. Va. 490, 370 S.E.2d 325 (1988). See also W. Va. Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3.1 (A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law[.])
The lawsuit filed by Ms. Davis is a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit. By prohibiting the circuit court in this case from imposing sanctions for the filing of such a meritless pleading, the majority opinion has left no room for trial courts to ever again impose Rule 11 sanctions. Attorneys who file frivolous lawsuits in the future can evade sanctions and disciplinary charges merely by citing to the majority's decision. Worse yet, the majority decision has no judicial support to challenge a universally accepted common law principle, which categorically precludes a negligence action by a convicted criminal defendant against expert witnesses who are testifying on behalf of the prosecution. (See footnote 5) The ultimate result of the majority's decision will almost certainly be the death knell for causes of action requiring the services of an expert witness, from medical malpractice and personal injury cases to abuse and neglect proceedings and criminal prosecutions.
For the foregoing reasons, I dissent. I am authorized to state that Justice Maynard joins me in this dissenting opinion.
(a) Any person who is under
an oath or affirmation which has been lawfully administered and who willfully
testifies falsely regarding a material matter in a trial of any person, corporation
or other legal entity for a felony, or before any grand jury which is considering
a felony indictment, shall be guilty of the felony offense of perjury.
(b) Any person who induces or procures another person to testify falsely regarding a material matter in a trial of any person, corporation or other legal entity for a felony, or before any grand jury which is considering a felony indictment, shall be guilty of the felony offense of subornation of perjury.
See also State v. Justice, 130 W. Va. 662, 44 S.E.2d 859 (1947) (reviewing subornation
of perjury conviction); Syl., in part, State v. Lake, 107 W. Va. 124, 147
S.E. 473 (1929) (It is vital in a trial of an indictment for perjury
that the evidence given . . . in a former judicial proceeding and alleged
to have been willfully false, should show that such evidence so given . .
. was material to the issue involved in the trial.). Finally, a criminal
action for false swearing is available under W. Va. Code § 61-5-2 (1923)
(Repl. Vol. 2000), which provides:
To wilfully swear falsely,
under oath or affirmation lawfully administered, in a trial of the witness
or any other person for a felony, concerning a matter or thing not material,
and on any occasion other than a trial for a felony, concerning any matter
or thing material or not material, or to procure another person to do so,
is false swearing and is a misdemeanor.
See also State v. Wade, 174 W. Va. 381, 327 S.E.2d 142 (1985) (affirming false swearing conviction).