Marcure v. Lynn, No. 19-2978 (7th Cir. 2021)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Marcure sued police officers and others. Before the officers moved to dismiss, Marcure filed notice of an address change from Arizona to Illinois. The court mailed notices, including notices of the motion to dismiss, to the Illinois address; these notices were returned as undeliverable. Based on the returned documents, the court ordered Marcure to show cause why his case should not be dismissed due to his failure to keep the court apprised of his address. Marcure provided notice of a post-office box days later and filed a response to the officers’ motion, nearly a month late and lacking a signature. The court excused the late filing but warned that it would strike the response under FRCP 11(a) if Marcure did not correct the signature deficiency within six days. Marcure filed timely, signed responses to the prosecutors' motions to dismiss but did not correct his unsigned response to the officers’ motion. One week after the deadline to correct that response, the court struck Marcure’s response, then dismissed the claims against the officers solely because their motion was unopposed.

The Seventh Circuit reversed. While Rule 11(a) requires striking unsigned pleadings, Rule 12(b)(6) requires courts to address the merits of motions to dismiss and any local rule to the contrary is invalid under Rule 83(a)(1). The rule places the burden on the movant to show entitlement to dismissal; courts must address the merits of Rule 12(b)(6) motions even when they are unopposed.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 19-2978 BRANNEN MARCURE, Plainti -Appellant, v. TYLER LYNN, et al., Defendants-Appellees. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois No. 3:18-CV-03137 — Sue E. Myerscough, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED JANUARY 21, 2021 — DECIDED MARCH 25, 2021 ____________________ Before SYKES, Chief Judge, and MANION and ST. EVE, Circuit Judges. ST. EVE, Circuit Judge. This appeal asks us to address the scope of two Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: Rule 11(a) and Rule 12(b)(6). Under Rule 11(a), courts must strike unsigned documents unless the ling party promptly corrects them. Rule 12(b)(6) provides a mechanism for dismissing a claim if the movant shows that the claimant insu ciently pleaded it. While these rules may appear unrelated, they intersect in this 2 No. 19-2978 case because the district court’s application of Rule 11(a) indirectly led to its Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of Brannen Marcure’s claims. Marcure, a pro se litigant, alleged § 1983 claims against several police o cers, who led a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss those claims. Marcure’s response to their motion lacked a signature in violation of Rule 11(a). Although the district court gave Marcure six days to remedy this de ciency, he never did. The court then struck his response and granted the o cers’ motion on the sole basis that it was unopposed. This appeal followed. Marcure, assisted by appointed counsel, challenges the district court’s decision on two fronts. As a threshold matter, he argues that the district court struck his response under the incorrect presumption that Rule 11(a) is mandatory. He also attacks the dismissal itself as impermissibly relieving the o cers of their burden under Rule 12(b)(6). Because the rule places the burden on the movant to show entitlement to dismissal, he argues, courts must address the merits of Rule 12(b)(6) motions even when they are unopposed. Although we decline to adopt Marcure’s interpretation of Rule 11(a), we agree that courts may not dismiss Rule 12(b)(6) motions solely because they are unopposed. We thus reverse and remand to the district court. I. This lawsuit began when Marcure led a § 1983 action against several defendants, including police o cers, No. 19-2978 3 prosecutors, defense attorneys, and relatives. 1 Between the initiation of his suit and the o cers’ ling of their motion to dismiss in September 2018, Marcure led notice of an address change from Arizona to Illinois. The district court mailed notices, including a notice of the motion to dismiss, to the Illinois address that Marcure listed; these notices were returned as undeliverable. Based on the returned court documents, in October 2018 the court entered a docket text order for Marcure to show cause why his case should not be dismissed due to his failure to keep the court apprised of his current address. Marcure provided notice of a post-o ce box seven days later. On October 22, 2018, Marcure led a response to the o cers’ motion to dismiss. The response was nearly a month late and lacked a signature. The court entered another docket text order on October 26, 2018, excusing the late ling due to Marcure’s recent address change but warning that the court would strike the response pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(a) if Marcure did not correct the signature de ciency within six days. Around the same time, the defense attorneys and prosecutors led motions to dismiss (on October 29th and November 7th) to which Marcure led timely, signed responses. He did not, however, correct his unsigned response to the o cers’ motion or le a new response. Curiously, his amended 1 We have appellate jurisdiction because the district court entered judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58. The judgment dismissed the claims against all the defendants, doing so with prejudice as to the defendants that Marcure served, and indicated that the district court was nished with the case. See Kowalski v. Boliker, 893 F.3d 987, 994 (7th Cir. 2018); see also Ordower v. Feldman, 826 F.2d 1569, 1572 (7th Cir. 1987). 4 No. 19-2978 response to the defense attorneys’ motion contained a handwritten note following the signature that stated: “Plainti signed and numbered pages thank you.” On November 8, 2018, one week after the deadline to correct the response to the o cers’ motion, the court struck Marcure’s response. The court then dismissed the claims against the o cers with prejudice solely because their motion was unopposed. For authority, the court relied on Central District of Illinois Local Rule 7.1(B)(2), which permits the court to consider a motion unopposed and rule on it without further notice to the parties if a response was not led within 14 days. On appeal, Marcure contends that the court committed two reversible errors. First, he argues that the court incorrectly interpreted Rule 11(a) as mandatory. Second, Marcure maintains that Rule 12(b)(6) requires courts to address the merits of motions to dismiss and that any local rule to the contrary is invalid under Rule 83(a)(1). The second issue is the subject of a circuit split, and Marcure urges us to adopt the majority approach. While we reject Marcure’s interpretation of Rule 11(a), we agree with his reading of Rule 12(b)(6) and reverse and remand on that basis. II. We review legal determinations de novo and applications of Rule 11(a) for abuse of discretion. Common Cause Ind. v. Lawson, 937 F.3d 944, 949 (7th Cir. 2020); see Divane v. Krull Elec. Co., Inc., 200 F.3d 1020, 1025 (7th Cir. 1999). Rule 11(a) provides that courts “must strike an unsigned paper unless the omission is promptly corrected after being called to the attorney’s or party’s attention.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(a) (emphasis added). By its plain terms, Rule 11(a) is mandatory when No. 19-2978 5 triggered—“must” does not mean “may.” The text indicates that courts have discretion only when the party corrects its omission promptly, not as a blanket rule. Marcure’s atextual reading of Rule 11(a) relies primarily on dicta from our decision in Kovilic Construction Company, Inc. v. Missbrenner, 106 F.3d 768 (7th Cir. 1997). There, we addressed whether the district court properly dismissed a case for counsel’s failure to le an appearance and a davit, as required by local rules. Although the district court referenced Rule 11(a) as one of the bases for dismissal, we observed that this rule was not at issue. The problem was that the plainti had failed to le documents at all, not that it had led unsigned documents. Id. at 772. Despite that acknowledgement, we then opined that if Rule 11(a) had been at issue, it would have been inappropriate for the district court to strike any unsigned documents. We relied on precedent for this conclusion, stating that “we have held that documents should be struck only where the failure to sign severely prejudiced the opposing party.” Id. We added that “the district court made no nding that Kovilic was prejudiced by [the] omissions.” Id. From this, Marcure infers that the district court had to make a prejudice nding prior to striking his unsigned document. Unfortunately for Marcure, Kovilic is not controlling on this point. As we acknowledged in Kovilic, Rule 11(a) was not implicated in that case. Our discussion of the rule was nonbinding dicta. 2 Even considering that dicta on the merits, we 2 At the time that we decided Kovilic, the 1993 version of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure applied. Under that version, Rule 11(a) provided in relevant part: 6 No. 19-2978 think that Kovilic misinterpreted Rule 11(a) and misread our earlier precedent. 3 Kovilic relied upon United States v. Kasuboski, 834 F.2d 1345 (7th Cir. 1987), for its understanding of Rule 11(a). But Kasuboski does not support Kovilic’s dicta. Unlike Kovilic, our decision in Kasuboski squarely involved Rule 11(a). In Kasuboski, the government led an unsigned document in the district court. It corrected the de ciency three days later, however, and the district court consequently declined to strike it. In a rming the district court, we observed: “In cases such as this, which do not involve the issue of sanctions for ling an unfounded motion, the failure to sign will not cause a motion to be stricken unless the adverse party Every pleading, written motion, and other paper shall be signed by at least one attorney of record in the attorney’s individual name, or, if the party is not represented by an attorney, shall be signed by the party…. An unsigned paper shall be stricken unless omission of the signature is corrected promptly after being called to the attention of the attorney or party. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(a) (1993) (emphasis added). The current version, implemented by the 2007 amendments to the rules, is substantially the same with the primary exception being that “must” has been substituted for “shall.” This change was part of the Rules Committee’s larger e ort— dubbed the Style Project—to synthesize and modernize the rules’ terminology. Fed. R. Civ. P. 1, Adv. Comm. Note (2007). One of the global changes made to the rules was the removal of “shall” and replacement of it with synonyms such as “must.” Id. The Rules Committee clari ed in its 2007 Advisory Note that these changes were stylistic, not substantive. Id. The Rule 11(a) analysis thus remains the same whether the Court is applying the 1993 version or the current version. 3 Because this opinion clari es the Court’s precedent by rejecting the dicta in Kovilic, it was circulated to all active judges pursuant to Circuit Rule 40(e). No judge voted to hear the case en banc. No. 19-2978 7 has been severely prejudiced or misled by the failure to sign.” Id. at 1348. Marcure isolates this sentence to argue that we require courts to conduct a prejudice inquiry before they may strike an unsigned document under Rule 11(a). But that ignores the context of the case. Kasuboski involved the exception to Rule 11(a)’s general mandate—cases where the litigant promptly corrects the unsigned ling. In those instances, Rule 11(a) no longer requires that courts “must” strike the document. Our discussion limited how courts exercise their discretion in that narrow circumstance. Kasuboski did not, however, endorse a reading of Rule 11(a) that requires a prejudice inquiry prior to striking an uncorrected document. Indeed, it says just the opposite: “Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that an unsigned motion shall be stricken ‘unless it is signed promptly after the omission is called to the attention of the movant.’” Id. (emphasis added). By suggesting otherwise, both Marcure and Kovilic overread our caselaw. As an alternative to his precedential argument, Marcure suggests that reading Rule 11(a) to require that courts exercise discretion to determine whether to strike an unsigned document is consistent with the rule’s purpose. Even assuming that this interpretation is consistent with one of Rule 11(a)’s goals, it remains untenable. Marcure’s reading of Rule 11(a) ignores the rule’s plain text and so fails to persuade us. Bus. Guides, Inc. v. Chromatic Comm’n Enters., Inc., 498 U.S. 533, 540–41 (1991) (“As with a statute, our inquiry is complete if we nd the text of the Rule to be clear and unambiguous.”). Marcure’s nal argument is that, regardless of Rule 11(a)’s meaning, the district court erred in striking his response. He contends that the court gave him insu cient time to correct 8 No. 19-2978 his ling and that he did attempt correction. To his rst point, Marcure suggests that the six days that the court gave him to correct his response were insu cient considering his recent move, the fact that he received notices from the district court by mail, and the lack of evidence that he checked his mailbox daily. But he cites no authority for his view that, under these circumstances, Rule 11(a) required that the district court grant him more time to correct his response. And the record suggests that Marcure could access the electronic docket entries. He responded to the district court’s show-cause order—during a time when the court’s mailed notices were being returned as undeliverable—within one week of the order’s entry on the electronic docket. There is no evidence to suggest that he did not, or could not, also view the court’s docket entry notice of his ling de ciency. Marcure alternatively insists that his handwritten note, attached to his response to the defense attorneys’ motion, shows that he tried to correct his response to the police o cers’ motion. We do not follow that logic. That note—stating “Plainti signed and numbered pages thank you”—was inscribed on an amended response to a di erent motion, led more than a month after Marcure led his response to the o cers’ motion. And it did not reference the o cers’ motion or the court’s notice of de ciency. Even if we were to construe it as an attempted correction, it is di cult to view this attempt—made weeks after the district court noti ed Marcure of his de cient response—as a prompt correction. The district court’s decision to strike the response was not an abuse of discretion. For these reasons, the district court did not err in interpreting Rule 11(a) as mandatory or striking Marcure’s unsigned response. The text of the rule is clear: Rule 11(a) does not give No. 19-2978 9 courts discretion to overlook a party’s failure to correct promptly an unsigned ling, much less require a prejudice inquiry prior to striking such a ling. We decline Marcure’s invitation to impart a broader reading than the text of the rule can bear. III. Marcure’s Rule 12(b)(6) argument has more merit. Rule 12(b)(6) provides that a party may assert as a defense its opponent’s “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). While the text does not discuss the burden of proof, every circuit court to address this issue—this Court included—has interpreted Rule 12(b)(6) as requiring the movant to show entitlement to dismissal. Gunn v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 968 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2020) (“It is the defendant’s burden to establish the complaint’s insu ciency.”); see Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, 5A Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357 (3d ed. 2019) (“All federal courts are in agreement that the burden is on the moving party to prove that no legally cognizable claim for relief exists.”). The question presented in this appeal is related but distinct: Does a court impermissibly fail to hold the movant to that burden by granting a Rule 12(b)(6) motion on the sole basis that it is unopposed? We agree with the majority approach and hold that it does. A. Although we have not addressed this issue with respect to Rule 12(b)(6), we answered the question in the a rmative in the analogous context of Rule 56 motions for summary judgment. Raymond v. Ameritech Corp., 442 F.3d 600, 608 (7th Cir. 2006). Our reasoning was straightforward: “The ultimate 10 No. 19-2978 burden of persuasion remains with [the movant] to show that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. Put another way, Rule 56 imposes an a rmative obligation on a movant that we cannot ignore merely because a nonmovant provides no responsive arguments. The same logic applies to Rule 12(b)(6). To be sure, Rule 12(b)(6) di ers in that its text, unlike that of Rule 56, does not expressly allocate the burden of proof to the movant. But our judicial interpretation of Rule 12(b)(6) has understood it to do just that. Both rules thus impose the same requirement—movants must prove entitlement to relief. The o cers pro er no explanation for why the disposition of unopposed motions under these two rules ought to di er despite that identical requirement. Our Rule 12(b)(6) caselaw supports that it should not. In Bolt v. Loy, we listed “three possible grounds for dismissing a suit because a response” is overdue: (1) the nonmovant’s action evinces intent to abandon suit; (2) there is failure to prosecute; or (3) dismissal is a sanction for the nonmovant’s inaction. 227 F.3d 854, 856 (7th Cir. 2000). Under any of those grounds, the lack of response alone is insu cient—the district court must construe the lack of response as indicating an intent to abandon suit or as meriting a sanction. Id. Here, the district court made no such determination. The only explanation for the court’s dismissal of Marcure’s claims was the unopposed motion to dismiss. The majority of circuit courts have made explicit what our precedent implies. Of the eight circuit courts to consider this issue, six have held that courts may not grant Rule 12(b)(6) No. 19-2978 11 motions solely because they are unopposed.4 The D.C. Circuit takes a middle approach and “reluctantly” permits courts to grant Rule 12(b)(6) motions on this basis—but only if the court does so without prejudice. Cohen v. Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of the Dist. of Col., 819 F.3d 476, 480 (D.C. Cir. 2016). We see no reason for this distinction. The D.C. Circuit itself expressed doubts about its conclusion but was bound by circuit precedent. Id. at 481. Only the First Circuit has adopted the position urged by the police o cers. The Court acknowledged that “the mere fact that a motion to dismiss is unopposed does not relieve the district court of the obligation to examine the complaint itself.” Pomerleau v. W. Spring eld Pub. Sch., 362 F.3d 143, 145 (1st Cir. 2004). But it held that Rule 12(b)(6)’s requirement could nevertheless be overridden by local rules if “the result does not clearly o end equity.” Id. We do not nd that reasoning persuasive. Neither the First Circuit nor the o cers square this logic with Rule 83(a)(1), which provides that local rules “must be consistent with” the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Fed. R. Civ. P. 83(a)(1). We thus reject the First Circuit’s approach in favor of the majority view, which has the sounder reading of the federal rules and more closely aligns with our own treatment of Rule 12(b)(6). B. Giummo v. Olsen, 701 F. App’x 922, 924–25 (11th Cir. 2017) (per curiam); Issa v. Comp USA, 354 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2003); McCall v. Pataki, 232 F.3d 321, 322–23 (2d Cir. 2000); Stackhouse v. Mazurkiewicz, 951 F.2d 29, 30 (3d Cir. 1991); Carver v. Bunch, 946 F.2d 451, 453–55 (6th Cir. 1991); Ramsey v. Signal Delivery Serv., Inc., 631 F.2d 1210, 1214 (5th Cir. 1980). 4 12 No. 19-2978 In the absence of clear support within our Rule 12(b)(6) caselaw, the o cers lean heavily on the local rule cited by the district court. Central District of Illinois Local Rule 7.1(B)(2) provides: “Any party opposing a motion led pursuant to (B)(1) must le a response to the motion, including a brief statement of the speci c points or propositions of law and supporting authorities upon which the responding party relies. The response must be led within 14 days after service of the motion and memorandum. If no response is timely led, the presiding judge will presume there is no opposition to the motion and rule without further notice to the parties.” We note rst that the text of the local rule does not require or expressly authorize courts to grant a motion solely because there is no response led. It requires a response, provides that the court may presume no opposition if there is no response, and permits the court to rule on the motion without additional notice. But courts may rule on an unopposed Rule 12(b)(6) motion by reaching the merits rather than granting it on the basis that it is unopposed. Nothing in the local rule authorizes courts to grant motions solely because they are unopposed, and the rule is not nulli ed by our rejection of this application of it. Even if the local rule required the district court’s application of it, we hold pursuant to Rule 83(a)(1) that a local rule cannot abridge a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. The o cers argue that our precedent permits courts to strictly enforce local rules, even in the face of contrary federal rules. For authority, they cite two of our cases addressing this interplay: Tobel v. City of Hammond and Stanciel v. Gramley. Tobel was an appeal of the denial of a Rule 60(b)(3) motion to vacate judgment, which we a rmed. 94 F.3d 360 (7th Cir. No. 19-2978 13 1996). The o cers cite Tobel for our observation that “the district court clearly has authority to enforce strictly its Local Rules, even if a default results.” Id. at 362. While true, however, that statement does not authorize strict enforcement of local rules in a manner that con icts with federal rules of procedure. Further, we based our decision in Tobel on an analysis of the district court’s application of Rule 60(b)(3), not its authority under the local rule used to grant the motion that the plainti s sought to vacate under Rule 60(b)(3). Nothing about Tobel prevents us from adopting Marcure’s interpretation of Rule 12(b)(6). Our discussion in Stanciel is more salient. There, the plainti responded to a motion to dismiss but did not address all the challenged claims. 267 F.3d 575, 577–78 (7th Cir. 2001). The district court “deemed confessed” the unaddressed claims and dismissed them, relying on the same local rule at issue here. Id. We a rmed, explaining that the “decision whether to apply [a local] rule strictly or to overlook any transgression is one left to the district court’s discretion.” Id. at 579. We emphasized that the plainti had not shown that the district court abused its discretion in applying the local rule and that any error in dismissal was harmless. Id. at 579–80. Stanciel is distinguishable from this case. In contrast to Marcure, Stanciel led a response that defended only some of the claims challenged by the motion to dismiss, despite the district court’s clear warning of the consequences for failure to defend them. Stanciel’s choice could be understood as waiver of the claims that he left unaddressed. And the district court seemed to take this view, as it “deemed confessed” the unaddressed claims. More importantly, Stanciel, unlike Marcure, did not raise the issue of the local rule’s compatibility 14 No. 19-2978 with Rule 12(b)(6). Our holding thus did not address this con ict. Stanciel does not hold that local rules can supersede the directive of Rule 12(b)(6). IV. Our decision today is guided by an overarching principle: “We give the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure their plain meaning.” Bus. Guides, Inc., 498 U.S. at 540. For that reason, we hold that Rule 11(a) requires courts to strike unsigned lings that are not corrected promptly and that Rule 12(b)(6) prevents courts from granting unopposed motions solely because there is no response. 5 The district court’s dismissal of Marcure’s claims against the police o cers is reversed, and we remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 5 Our holding does not render district courts powerless to dispose of motions to dismiss in the face of inactive plainti s. Courts remain free to rule on Rule 12(b)(6) motions even absent a response by looking to the complaint itself to determine the su ciency of the pleadings. They may also dismiss inactive cases for want of prosecution, if appropriate.
Primary Holding
Courts must address the merits of Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss even when they are unopposed.

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