“As officers of the Court, these attorneys have a higher duty and calling that requires meaningful investigation before prematurely repeating in court pleadings unverified and uninvestigated defamatory rumors that strike at the heart of our democratic system and were used by others to foment a violent insurrection that threatened our system of government,” Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter wrote.
“They are experienced lawyers who should have known better. They need to take responsibility for their misconduct,” he wrote.
The two lawyers, Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker, filed the case in December 2020 as a class action on behalf of 160 million American voters, alleging there was a complicated plot to steal the election from President Donald Trump and give the victory to Joe Biden.
The two argued that a scheme was engineered by the voting machine vendor Dominion Voting Systems; the tech company Facebook, its founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and elected officials in four states. They had sought $160 billion in damages.
Their case was dismissed in April. In August, Neureiter ruled that the attorneys had violated their ethical obligations by filing it in the first place, arguing that the duo had run afoul of legal rules that prohibit clogging the courts with frivolous motions and lodging information in court that is not true. At the time, he called their suit “the stuff of which violent insurrections are made,” alleging they made little effort to determine the truth of their conspiratorial claims before filing them in court. He ordered them to pay the legal fees of all of the many entities they had sued.
In a statement, Fielder called the order “unfathomable” and noted that the court’s sanctions and its dismissal of his original case are under appeal.
“We are not going to stop fighting for the rights of the people to vote in free and fair Presidential elections. This is the cross to die on,” he wrote.
In Monday’s order, Neureiter said the lawyers should pay just over $11,000 to cover the legal fees of the states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, both defendants in the suit, a dollar figure the duo had agreed was fair. The two lawyers had balked, however, at far higher fees requested by three other entities: Facebook, Dominion Voting Systems and the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), an election reform advocacy group that has received funding from Zuckerberg and Chan.
In a 21-page order Monday, Neureiter ordered that Fielder and Walker pay $50,000 to Facebook and $62,930 each to Dominion and CTCL, arguing that billing records submitted by the group showed the fees were reasonable given the prominence of the lawyers who worked on the case and the amount of time they spent.
What’s more, Neureiter wrote, the hefty fees were appropriate given “the severity of the violation” and because the lawyers had solicited donations from the “arguably innocent and gullible public” to fund their suit. He said he weighed whether the penalties could chill future legitimate lawsuits but concluded that “the repetition of defamatory and potentially dangerous unverified allegations is the kind of ‘advocacy’ that needs to be chilled.”
Neureiter agreed to stay his order, pending the outcome of the lawyers’ appeal.
Neureiter’s order is one of the first efforts to put a dollar figure on penalties for lawyers who attempted to use the legal system to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life provided grants to local governments to help administer elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, grants that have been the subject of criticism and conspiracy theories by Trump supporters.
The group’s executive director, Tiana Epps-Johnson, said in a statement that “not a single challenge” to the grant program “has had basis in fact or law,” adding that “another federal judge has agreed.” She called on Congress to appropriate funding to ensure secure elections in 2022.
A spokeswoman for Dominion said the company was “grateful for the court’s findings.” She noted another key finding of the judge, who wrote: “This lawsuit has been an abuse of the legal system and an interference with the machinery of government.”
A federal judge in Michigan has ordered that a different group of lawyers that challenged the election, including Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, be financially penalized and referred them for grievance proceedings that could result in the loss of law licenses.
Dominion has also sued Powell, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and a number of other individuals and media organizations for defamation, arguing that the company was harmed by false claims its voting machines were manipulated to steal the election from Trump.
In June, a panel of judges in New York suspended Giuliani’s law license, arguing Trump’s personal lawyer had “communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements” that amounted to an ongoing threat to the public. Giuliani’s lawyers have said they are confident his license will be restored after a hearing.