Attorney sanctions upheld in 'utterly baseless' lawsuit challenging 2020 election

Vote counting in Arizona midterm election
A view shows Dominion Voting Systems ImageCast Central ballot counter system which is used to scan ballots for the U.S. midterm elections at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., November 11, 2022. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart REFILE - QUALITY REPEAT
  • Lawyers must pay legal fees to Facebook, Dominion
  • Lawsuit part of wave of failed claims over presidential race

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday upheld nearly $187,000 in monetary sanctions against two lawyers who filed and lost an "utterly baseless" lawsuit challenging Democrat Joe Biden's 2020 presidential win over his Republican rival Donald Trump.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado said Denver attorneys Gary Fielder and Ernest Walker must pay the legal fees of election equipment maker Dominion Voting Systems Inc, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc and other defendants accused in the lawsuit of meddling in the election.

The Denver-based appeals court affirmed the sanction based on the "inherent power" of judges and also a federal law that says a lawyer can be liable for costs for "unreasonably and vexatiously" extending a court case.

"An attorney is expected to exercise judgment, and must 'regularly re-evaluate the merits' of claims and 'avoid prolonging meritless claims,'" 10th Circuit Chief Judge Jerome Holmes, sitting with Circuit Judges Timothy Tymkovich and Veronica Rossman, wrote in their unsigned order. The panel called the legal arguments underpinning the case "utterly baseless."

The lawsuit was part of a wave of failed efforts contesting the 2020 election.

In some cases, parties sought sanctions against the lawyers who filed election lawsuits, and in other instances judges acted on their own to sanction attorneys. Attorney licensing officials in Washington, D.C., Texas and elsewhere have opened ethics investigations against some lawyers who pursued election claims backing Trump's meritless assertion that Biden stole victory from him.

In a statement on Tuesday, Fielder said "never did we think that our actions were unethical or frivolous." He said "affirmation of sanctions imposed against us will have a chilling effect on other lawyers" in future cases.

Fielder said he and Walker will ask the 10th Circuit to rehear their dispute and will turn to the U.S. Supreme Court "if necessary."

Regarding Tuesday's ruling, Stanley Garnett, a lawyer for Dominion Voting at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said that "Dominion hopes that such orders will deter lawyers from filing similarly frivolous litigation in the future."

Attorneys for Meta at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representatives from Dominion and Meta also did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment.

The court's order said Dominion Voting was entitled to about $62,900, and Meta would receive about $50,000.

Other defendants who will be paid fees include state officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania, in addition to the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

The case is O'Rourke v. Dominion Voting Systems Inc, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1442.

For plaintiffs: Gary Fielder of Law Office of Gary Fielder, and Ernest Walker of Ernest J. Walker Law Office.

For Dominion: Stanley Garnett of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

(NOTE: This article was updated with comment from Dominion Voting's attorney.)

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