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Plaintiffs Sanctioned For Lack of Pre-Suit Research

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - The plaintiffs in a racial discrimination case against a Virginia school attorney failed to adequately investigate their claims and therefore are subject to sanction, a federal judge ruled.

Patrick Andriano, an attorney with Reed Smith LLP, asked for the sanctions against the plaintiffs while their lawsuit against him, the Virginia Department of Education, and several local school districts was pending.

The underlying complaint alleged a series incidents of discrimination against black and special education students at four Virginia school districts, and asserted federal and state law claims against principals, teachers, and two attorneys, including Andriano.

The lawsuit identified Adriano as representing the Essex, Nottaway, Henrico and Chesterfield County School Boards, accused him of, among other things, essentially encouraging them to ignore complaints of discrimination.

The court dismissed the case against all parties on Sept, 23, 2014, but in doing so retained jurisdiction over Andriano's sanctions motion.

According to the ruling, Andriano's argument was that the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit merely to harass the defendants and not with "the sincere and central purpose of vindicating rights in court."

Specifically, Andriano argued that the claims against him lacked a legal basis; lacked any factual basis; and were filed for an improper purpose.

He also noted the plaintiffs were told the allegations they were making had no factual basis, but they went ahead with filing an amended complaint.

In ruling in Andriano's favor, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Payne found the plaintiffs' lawsuit was fatally flawed in two respects: They had failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before proceeding with litigation, and that they failed to conduct the reasonable inquiry required as the basis of their claims.

To make his point, Andriano focused on one of the plaintiffs' state law claims, that he had allegedly breached a duty "arising from a special relationship."

"The law of Virginia is quite clear on this subject," Judge Payne wrote. "Plaintiffs' counsel has not shown that any prefiling legal research was undertaken in an effort to find legal support for the 'special relationship; assertions in the Amended Complaint. And, given the clear and settled nature of Virginia law on the subject, it is difficult to conclude that any such research was undertaken.

"On this record then, the Court finds that there was no pre-filing inquiry into the law that applies to the special relationship assertions in the Amended Complaint," Payne said.

He continued, noting the record shows "a substantial basis for the allegations about

Adriano's presence at, and his observed conduct during, some of the meetings alleged in the Amended Complaint.

"However, the record now shows that the allegation that Adriano was not counsel for the School Board of Essex and Nottoway Counties. Thus, "[e]ven a cursory investigation" would have revealed that Adriano did not represent the school boards for either Nottoway County or Essex County and that he was not involved in the development of IEPs for the student-plaintiffs attending schools in those counties. In sum, there was not an adequate investigation into the factual basis for allegations to the contrary."

Given these findings, Judge Payne concluded sanctions against the plaintiff are appropriate. He stopped short, however, of determining what the sanctions will be, directing counsel to "confer and advise" the court on the matter by January 31.

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