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In re E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.-Benlate Litig.

ELR Citation: 27 ELR 20432
Nos. 95-9059, 99 F.3d 363/(11th Cir., 10/17/1996)

The court reverses and remands a district court contempt order imposing over $114 million in sanctions against a chemical manufacturing company for violating the court's discovery orders. The district court found that the company deliberately withheld critical test documents during a trial regarding whether a fungicide manufactured by the company was contaminated with a highly toxic herbicide. The court first holds that even after the litigation was voluntarily dismissed, the district court had jurisdiction to conduct a show-cause hearing as to why the company should not be sanctioned. Every district court has the power to conduct an independent investigation to determine whether it has been the victim of fraud. In addition, the district court was free to vacate its earlier judgment, in whole or in part, and to resume proceedings on the same jurisdictional basis as it possessed in the underlying case. The court then holds that the sanctions the district court imposed were overwhelmingly punitive—and thus criminal—in nature. There was no compensatory aspect to the contempt order. Although part of the sanctions represented the costs to plaintiffs in preparing for and conducting the underlying trial, the district court did not order this sum to be paid to appellees or any of the other plaintiffs in the original litigation. Instead, the district court ordered the sum to be paid into the registry of the court. Further, there was no coercive aspect to the district court's contempt order. At the time the district court entered the order, the company could no longer comply with the discovery order because the underlying litigation had terminated. Thus, the court reverses the contempt order because the district court did not afford the company the procedural protection the U.S. Constitution requires for the imposition of criminal contempt sanctions. The court next rejects the company's argument that there is insufficient evidence from which a reasonable finder of fact could conclude that there was areasonably specific order requiring the company to produce the test documents. The court holds that a reasonable finder of fact could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that plaintiffs' request for production of documents covered the test documents, and that the district court overruled the company's objections to that request and ordered the company to produce the documents.

Counsel for Petitioner
Richard H. Gill
Copeland, Franco, Screws & Gill
444 S. Perry St., Montgomery AL 36101
(334) 834-1180

Counsel for Respondent
Sidney O. Smith
Alston & Bird
One Atlantic Ctr.
1201 W. Peachtree St., Atlanta GA 30309
(404) 881-7000

Before DUBINA, and CARNES, Circuit Judges, and FARRIS*, Senior Circuit Judge.