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Fontanillas-Lopez v. Morell Bauza Cartagena & Dapena, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 5, 2016

LOURDES DEL ROSARIO FONTANILLAS-LOPEZ, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
MORELL BAUZÁ CARTAGENA & DAPENA, LLC; PEDRO A. MORELL-LOSADA; ANTONIO BAUZÁ SANTOS; EDGARDO CARTAGENA-SANTIAGO; RAMÓN E. DAPENA-GUERRERO; LOURDES M. VÁZQUEZ, Defendants, Appellees. MILDRED M. LOPEZ-MARTINEZ; LUIS A. FONTANILLAS-PINO, Plaintiffs,

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S. District Judge]

          Roberto Márquez-Sánchez on brief for appellant.

          Rosangela Sanfilippo-Resumil on brief for appellees.

          Before Kayatta and Barron, Circuit Judges, and McAuliffe, [*] District Judge.

          KAYATTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In March 2012, Lourdes del Rosario Fontanillas-Lopez ("Fontanillas") filed sex discrimination claims under federal and Puerto Rico law against her former employer, Morell Bauzá Cartagena & Dapena, LLC ("MBCD"), and several individual defendants. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of MBCD on Fontanillas's federal claims and, having dismissed all of Fontanillas's other claims, later awarded attorneys' fees to the defendants. Fontanillas moved for relief from the summary judgment order and for reconsideration of the fees award. The district court denied both motions. On appeal, Fontanillas challenges the denial of both motions, as well as the denial of her request to exceed the normal page limits in filing those motions. She also directly challenges the award of attorneys' fees to the defendants. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         I. Background

         Fontanillas began working as an attorney in MBCD's Tax Department in January 2009.[1] Fontanillas-Lopez v. Morel Bauza Cartagena & Dapena LLC ("Fontanillas I"), 995 F.Supp.2d 21, 28 (D.P.R. 2014). Fontanillas's supervisor soon grew concerned with Fontanillas's poor relationships with her female co-workers, substandard work performance, and failure to comply with MBCD rules. Id. at 40. On the supervisor's recommendation, MBCD's capital partners decided in August 2011 to terminate Fontanillas. Id. Several months later, Fontanillas filed a complaint against MBCD and its co-owners and administrator in federal district court.[2] Fontanillas's complaint raised sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation claims under Puerto Rico law and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., as well as claims sounding in Puerto Rico employment and tort law.

         Almost a year into the proceedings, during the course of discovery, the individual defendants moved to dismiss the federal claims against them. The district court granted this motion over Fontanillas's opposition, leaving MBCD as the lone remaining defendant on Fontanillas's federal claims. Several months thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment on all remaining claims. In a thorough written opinion, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of MBCD on Fontanillas's federal claims and dismissed Fontanillas's supplemental claims under Puerto Rico law without prejudice. Fontanillas I, 995 F.Supp.2d at 53.

         Following entry of judgment on February 7, 2014, the defendants moved for attorneys' fees. The district court, in a November 18, 2014, written opinion, accepted the defendants' argument that Fontanillas had continued to litigate even after she had been "duly apprised" during the course of discovery that "her claims were devoid of any merit." Fontanillas-Lopez v. Morel Bauza Cartagena & Dapena LLC ("Fontanillas II"), 59 F.Supp.3d 420, 425 (D.P.R. 2014). In consequence, the district court found Fontanillas liable to the defendants for the $53, 662.50 in attorneys' fees they had accrued following the point at which, in the district court's estimation, Fontanillas should have been aware that she held a losing hand. Id. at 427.

         On December 16, 2014, Fontanillas filed a 40-page motion for reconsideration of the attorneys' fees award under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e)[3] ("the Rule 59(e) motion") and a motion for relief from the underlying summary judgment order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) ("the Rule 60(b) motion"), the latter of which was accompanied by a 39-page memorandum.[4] Because these filings exceeded the 25-page limit applicable to certain motions and memoranda under the district court's local rules, see D.P.R. Civ. R. 7(d), Fontanillas filed a contemporaneous motion for leave to submit filings in excess of the allowed pages. On January 23, 2015, the district court denied Fontanillas leave to exceed the page limits and so struck her Rule 59(e) motion and her Rule 60(b) motion, with its accompanying memorandum, from the record. The order denying leave invited Fontanillas to re-file compliant motions, which she did six days later, on January 29, 2015.[5]

         While awaiting decision on these motions, Fontanillas filed on February 23, 2015, a notice of appeal as to the November 18, 2014, award of attorneys' fees and the January 23, 2015, denial of leave to file in excess of the local page limits. Just after the initial appellate briefing schedule had been set, the district court issued an opinion and order on September 30, 2015, denying Fontanillas's Rule 59(e) and 60(b) motions. Fontanillas-Lopez v. Morel Bauza Cartagena & Dapena LLC ("Fontanillas III"), 136 F.Supp.3d 152, 160 (D.P.R. 2015). Fontanillas then timely amended her notice of appeal to include challenges to these denials. In all, Fontanillas asks us to review four of the district court's rulings: (1) the denial of leave to submit filings in excess of the local page limits; (2) the award of attorneys' fees to the defendants; (3) the denial of her Rule 59(e) motion to reconsider that award; and (4) the denial of her Rule 60(b) motion for relief from the underlying summary judgment order. We consider these rulings in turn.

         II. Analysis

         A. Leave to Exceed Local Page Limits

         Fontanillas's first claim of error is that the district court abused its discretion in declining to allow her Rule 59(e) motion and the memorandum in support of her Rule 60(b) motion to exceed the page limits established by the district court's local rules. Fontanillas recognizes that district courts' "broad latitude in administering local rules" entitles those courts "to demand adherence to specific mandates contained in th[ose] rules." Air Line Pilots Ass'n v. Precision Valley Aviation, Inc., 26 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 1994). But Fontanillas seeks to turn this broad discretion to her advantage, arguing that because the District of Puerto Rico's local rules permit a district court to waive the applicable page limits "by prior leave, " D.P.R. Civ. R. 7(d), the district court here had "ample latitude" to allow her overlength filings.

         Fontanillas's argument flips abuse-of-discretion review on its head by suggesting that we may reverse the district court merely because it could have exercised its "ample latitude" differently. This is not the prerogative of an appellate court. Cf. NEPSK, Inc. v. Town of Houlton, 283 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2002) (finding it "within the district court's discretion" to enforce local rules where "the result does not clearly offend equity"). Fontanillas did not offer the district court any reason to grant an exception to the usual page restrictions beyond the bare assertion that her arguments required her to "address numerous issues of fact and quote extensively from the evidence in the case." Nor does Fontanillas provide a more robust explanation on appeal as to why she required the extra pages she sought. Instead, she observes that the district court had previously granted the defendants' motion to file an overlength motion for summary judgment and suggests that "[w]hat's good for the goose, is good for the gander." The district court, though, was within its discretion to find that the defendants, having the burden of persuasion in trying to prove a negative (i.e., that there are no disputed issues of material fact supportive of a discrimination claim) and the need to anticipate arguments that might or might not be made in response, presented a more persuasive case for an exception to the usual page limits than did Fontanillas. Under these circumstances, the district court did not abuse its wide discretion in holding Fontanillas to the default standards the local rules establish as appropriate for the typical litigant.

         B. Attorneys' Fees

         1. Jurisdiction

         Fontanillas next appeals both the award of attorneys' fees to the defendants and the district court's denial of her Rule 59(e) motion for reconsideration of that award. The defendants accept that this court has jurisdiction over the latter appeal but argue that we do not have jurisdiction over the former. This distinction could matter: on appeal from the denial of a Rule 59(e) motion, it is not fully settled to what extent the reviewing court may revisit the underlying judgment, see McKenna v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 693 F.3d 207, 213-14 & n.5 (1st Cir. 2012), and, in any event, "Rule 59(e) relief is granted sparingly, and only when 'the original judgment evidenced a manifest error of law, if there is newly discovered evidence, or in certain other narrow situations, '" Biltcliffe v. CitiMortgage, Inc., 772 F.3d 925, 930 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Global Naps, Inc. v. Verizon New Eng., Inc., 489 F.3d 13, 25 (1st Cir. 2007)); see also Ira Green, Inc. v. Military Sales & Serv. Co., 775 F.3d 12, 28 (1st Cir. 2014) ("[R]evising a final judgment [pursuant to Rule 59(e)] is an extraordinary remedy . . . .").

         Whether we have jurisdiction to entertain the merits of Fontanillas's challenge to the attorneys' fees award turns on whether the notice of appeal seeking review of that award was timely. A civil appellant must typically file a notice of appeal "within 30 days after entry of the judgment or order appealed from." Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1)(A). The district court entered its order granting attorneys' fees to the defendants on November 18, 2014, and Fontanillas filed her notice of appeal as to that order on February 23, 2015--well outside the usual 30-day window. Without more, this timeline would defeat our jurisdiction over the appeal. S ...


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