published Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Unusual sanctions sought against plaintiff, attorney


by Monica Mercer

A rarely invoked legal rule designed to prevent frivolous lawsuits has crept into an ongoing battle between a former Big River Grille waitress and an attorney who claims allegations that he sexually assaulted her at the restaurant are "complete fabrication."

Chattanooga attorney Chris Varner, who represents defendant and fellow attorney Charles Lawson, is asking a judge under the rule to force the waitress to pay legal fees in the case in light of several witness affidavits and conflicting reports from the woman herself.

The Times Free Press does not identify people alleged to be victims of sexual assault.

Mr. Varner also suggests in court documents filed late Monday that the woman's attorney, Darren McBride, also could be slapped with sanctions under "Rule 11" of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure for continuing with the suit while knowing his client's claims of a 2008 assault are false.

PDF: Lawson motion

Such measures among lawyers are "extremely rare," according to Chattanooga attorney Barry Abbott, who is not associated with the case.

"In 20 years of practice, I don't remember one case where Rule 11 ever was in play," Mr. Abbott said. "It's probably in less than 1 percent of all cases filed (in Tennessee)."

The rule allows for sanctions ranging from outright dismissal of a case to financial penalties for either plaintiffs or attorneys in order to discourage litigation that is based on a lie. Mr. Abbott said it's rarely needed because lawyers in general know how serious the consequences can be if they knowingly present false information to a court.

Rule 11 also usually does not come into play, Mr. Abbott said, because of the natural tendency in the judicial system to allow people to have their day in court. Evidence must be very strong, he said, to convince a judge that a case should be thrown out based solely on allegations that a plaintiff or attorney is lying about the facts.

"It's one thing to be wrong. People are wrong all the time, but that doesn't mean they have made their claim in bad faith," Mr. Abbott said. In most cases, he noted, a trial is appropriate to determine the facts.

The plaintiff's attorney, Mr. McBride, said Tuesday he had not yet seen the court documents related to the proposed Rule 11 sanctions but that the defense is "terrified of a trial on the merits" of the case.

"They're playing a shell game, trying anything to get this case dismissed," he said.

Mr. Varner aggressively has sought to pull apart the case, saying he believes there is enough evidence to support harsh sanctions under Rule 11, documents show.

A hearing on the matter is set for June 10 in front of a Rhea County judge. Hamilton County judges recused themselves from the case because Mr. Lawson is a well-known practicing attorney in Chattanooga.

The lawsuit's only aim, Mr. Varner states in court documents, has been to "harass Mr. Lawson into the possible payment of settlement monies and for other personal financial, psychological and/or emotional advantage to benefit (the) Plaintiff."

The case began as a criminal one. Mr. Lawson pleaded guilty to simple assault, and all evidence of the prosecution since has been expunged from his record since he had no prior criminal history.

Now the alleged victim is seeking $500,000 in the lawsuit against Mr. Lawson, 43, claiming he "slammed" her against a wall and fondled her genitals in 2008 while trying to enter Big River Grille during the Riverbend Festival.

Several of the plaintiff's former co-workers who claim to have seen the incident are adamant in affidavits that Mr. Lawson never sexually assaulted her and that she actually was playful with him as she checked patrons' identification at the door.

Another co-worker's affidavit states that the plaintiff asked her to lie about the incident, promising to give her a cut of any money she received from the lawsuit she was planning to file.

The plaintiff's own statements about the incident, including the verified complaint she filed in court, contain conflicting information, as well. Her first written statement about the incident says nothing about being "slammed" against a wall. A subsequent statement claims Mr. Lawson banged her head on a door, but no mention of that is made in the lawsuit.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Affidavits prove deception in assault lawsuit, lawyer says

PDF: Motion to dismiss the case

Article: Chattanooga: Witness says harassment never happened

Article: Chattanooga: Local sexual harassment attorney being sued for fondling waitress

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