No-go for sanctions defense of “I’m not a good lawyer”: Shales v. Local Union No. 330

The losers of a union election sued the winners in federal district court in Chicago, but it wasn’t a very impressive lawsuit. One plaintiff claimed that the threat of being fired caused an asthma attack, but since she in fact got a raise, and she had been having asthma attacks for 25 years, and there wasn’t any threat, her claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress didn’t get very far. The district court issued $80,000 in sanctions under Rule 11, just a fraction of the $200,000 that the defendants claimed to have paid in legal expenses, but James Gordon Banks objected to even this amount on the grounds that he was poor (though this was in some doubt, because of the assets in his wife’s name) and because he was only recently out of law school. Unfortunately for him, he drew Judge Easterbrook on the appeal, and we know that the judge does not suffer fools lightly:

If Banks really is a bad lawyer (as he depicts himself), and is poor because people are not willing to pay much, or at all, for his services, then he should turn from the practice of law to some other endeavor where he will do less harm. No court would say, in a medical-malpractice action, that a doctor whose low standards and poor skills caused a severe injury should be excused because he does not have very many patients. No more is a bad lawyer excused because he has few clients.

The $80,000 sanction was affirmed, and many took note of the humorous opinion: ABA Journal; UK Times OnLine; Wisconsin Law Journal; Courthouse News.


  • What is this guy even doing pretending to be a lawyer? What a joke.

  • Great opportunity for some truth in advertising:

    Available: young attorney with limited resources and plenty of free time on his hands, may also have questionable judgment.

  • The reasonableness of the lawyer’s position depends on whether Rule 11 awards are regarded as compensatory or punitive. If they are compensatory, the lawyer’s competence is irrelevant. If they are punitive, however, his position makes some sense as his (lack of) competence goes to state of mind. In effect, he would be arguing that he didn’t knowingly and willfully file a frivolous suit – he just screwed up.

  • Bumper, questionable judgment is a redundant statement when placed next to attorney.

    All of us who decided to get into this field have questionable judgment just for the entry, even if we behave ethically and practice well.