Zocaras v. Castro

Decision Date13 September 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-16982 Non-Argument Calendar.,05-16982 Non-Argument Calendar.
Citation465 F.3d 479
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
PartiesYan ZOCARAS, a.k.a. Carlos Vasquez, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CASTRO, Detective, Pino, Detective, Black, Officer, Mendez, Officer, Bonner, Officer, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

Christopher Allan Green, Miami, FL, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before DUBINA, CARNES and HULL, Circuit Judges.

CARNES, Circuit Judge:

If, as the Bible says, "[a]n honest answer is like a kiss on the lips," Proverbs 24:26 (N.I.V.), a pleading founded on a lie is like a kick in the gut. The question this appeal presents is whether a district court can dismiss a case with prejudice because the plaintiff filed and litigated his complaint under a false name.

I.

The plaintiff's real name, we now know, is Cesar Vasquez. The first time he was arrested in Florida was in 1997 for cocaine trafficking. On that occasion he gave the arresting officers the name Yan Michael Zocaras, and he was booked into the Department of Corrections system under that name. The plaintiff has four Florida felony convictions, and the arrests leading to some of them may have occurred between his arrest for cocaine trafficking in 1997 and his arrest for armed home invasion in 2000, which gave rise to this case. Regardless, when the plaintiff was arrested in 2000 he told the officers that his name was Carlos Vasquez. As a result, when he was booked into the Department of Corrections following that arrest his name was listed as "Yan Zocaras, a/k/a Carlos Vasquez." His guilty plea and the resulting incarceration from the 2000 arrest were both entered under that name.

With four prior felony convictions, the plaintiff is known to the Florida Department of Corrections by several names: Luis Garcia, Carlos Vasquez, Michael Vasquez, Yan Michael Zocaras, and Yan M. Zocaras. In 1996, he obtained a Florida driver's license in the name Yan Zocaras.

In July 2003, the plaintiff filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against several police officers for injuries he alleged were sustained when he was arrested in 2000 on the home invasion charges. Five months later he filed a second § 1983 complaint based on the same facts. Both complaints were filed using the name "Yan Zocaras, a/k/a Carlos Vasquez." Neither mentioned the name Cesar Vasquez. The two cases were consolidated, and then in February 2005 counsel entered an appearance for the plaintiff, who had been proceeding pro se.

From the beginning of this case until the jury trial, which took place in September 2005, the plaintiff filed more than thirty pleadings and motions under the false name "Yan Zocaras a/k/a Carlos Vasquez." At the trial the plaintiff was the first witness to testify. The initial testimony went like this:

Q. Please state your name for the record.

A. Yan Zocaras.

Q. Mr. Zocaras, are you known by any other names?

A. Yes, ma'am. Yes.

Q. What names are those?

A. Carlos Vasquez.

Q. Are you known by any other names?

A. Yes; with my true name.

Q. What is your true name?

A. Cesar Vasquez.

Q. Have you been known by any other names other than Carlos Vasquez and Cesar Vasquez?

A. No, ma'am.

Cross-examination began like this:

Q. Cesar Vasquez is your true name?

A. Yes.

Q. Yan Zocaras is a false name?

A. Yes.

Q. You're proceeding here in court under a false name?

Ms. Puentes: Objection, your Honor. Argumentative.

The Court: Sustained. Rephrase your question.

Q. So Mr. Vasquez, isn't it true that you have—you had a Florida ID under the name Yan Zocaras?

A. Yes.

Q. And when you were arrested by the police, you gave them the name Carlos Vasquez? Isn't that correct?

A. Yes.

Q. You lied about your name?

A. Yes.

On re-direct the next day, the plaintiff gave this explanation to the jury about why he had used a false name in the case:

Well, when I was sentenced, then I went to prison. I notified them that that was not my name and that I wanted to have a—change to my name. I asked them to change it to my name. And they told me that I had to continue to use that name until my sentence was over. And that's why I put the complaint under that name, because I couldn't have it under my name, as this was the name that I had in prison.

After the plaintiff rested, the defendants called two witnesses before resting.

The defendants then moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 11 and 41(b) because the plaintiff had proceeded under the false name Yan Zocaras. The district court conducted a hearing on the motion the following day and gave the plaintiff an opportunity to explain his actions. At one point, the district court stated for the record: "Let me announce the case once more. Yan Zocaras, now known as Cesar Vasquez, versus Emilio Lopez and Miguel Rodriguez, Case No. 03-22034."

At the hearing on the motion to dismiss the court directed the attorneys for the plaintiff to discuss with him whether he would waive his Fifth Amendment rights which would permit further inquiry into his use of a false name during the litigation. They told the court that they were civil lawyers who did not feel qualified to advise the plaintiff on the "slew of possible criminal issues here." The court then sent for an assistant federal public defender and recessed to provide an opportunity for her to advise the plaintiff on whether to waive the Fifth Amendment. After receiving further advice, the plaintiff asserted his Fifth Amendment rights as to any additional questioning about his use of false names.

Counsel for the plaintiff made a number of arguments against dismissal. The primary one was an assertion that the plaintiff had not acted willfully or in bad faith but only negligently based on a misunderstanding of what he had been told by the Department of Corrections. After hearing all that the plaintiff's counsel had to say, the district court entered detailed findings and conclusions, a copy of which we have attached to this opinion as Appendix A. Among other things, the court found that the plaintiff's use of a false name throughout the two years leading up to the trial had not been negligent or the result of a misunderstanding but was deliberate and willful. The court followed up its findings and conclusions from the bench with a written order to the same effect, a copy of which is Appendix B to this opinion. This appeal by the plaintiff followed.

II.

We review the district court's decision to dismiss a case for failure to comply with the rules of the court for an abuse of discretion. Betty K Agencies, Ltd. v. M/V Monada, 432 F.3d 1333, 1337 (11th Cir.2005). "Discretion means the district court has a `range of choice, and that its decision will not be disturbed as long as it stays within that range and is not influenced by any mistake of law.'" Id. (quoting Guideone Elite Ins. Co. v. Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, Inc., 420 F.3d 1317, 1324 (11th Cir.2005)). We review the district court's findings of fact for clear error. United States v. Martinelli, 454 F.3d 1300, 1306 (11th Cir.2006). We have articulated a two-part analysis for determining when an action should be dismissed as a sanction. There must be both a clear record of willful conduct and a finding that lesser sanctions are inadequate. Betty K Agencies, Ltd., 432 F.3d at 1339.

III.

Rule 41(b) makes clear that a trial court has discretion to impose sanctions on a party who fails to adhere to court rules. Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b). But that discretion is not unlimited, and the "[d]ismissal of a case with prejudice is considered a sanction of last resort, applicable only in extreme circumstances." Goforth v. Owens, 766 F.2d 1533, 1535 (11th Cir. 1985). Dismissal with prejudice is not proper unless "the district court finds a clear record of delay or willful conduct and that lesser sanctions are inadequate to correct such conduct." Betty K Agencies, Ltd., 432 F.3d at 1339. Mere negligence or confusion is not sufficient to justify a finding of delay or willful misconduct. McKelvey v. AT & T Techs., Inc., 789 F.2d 1518, 1520 (11th Cir.1986). In addition to its power under Rule 41(b), a court also has the inherent ability to dismiss a claim in light of its authority to enforce its orders and provide for the efficient disposition of litigation. See Link v. Wabash R.R., 370 U.S. 626, 630-31, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 1389, 8 L.Ed.2d 734 (1962).

The plaintiff contends that the record contains no evidence that his use of a false name was willful instead of merely negligent. We disagree for the reasons the district court set out in its detailed findings of fact. Our review of that court's findings is only for clear error, and here there clearly is none. The court convincingly rejected each of the arguments that the plaintiff's counsel put forward against a finding of willfulness, and we adopt its reasoning. The plaintiff did not merely slip up. He followed a pattern of deception for a period of at least six years from the time he got the driver's license in 1996 through multiple arrests, convictions, and incarcerations, and filed more than thirty pleadings and motions under a false name in this case. At least some of those pleadings and motions were filed under penalty of perjury. All of them hid his actual identity. Not until the pretrial proceedings were completed and a jury was in the box did the plaintiff finally own up to who he really is.

A trial is not a masquerade party nor is it a game of judicial hide-n-seek where the plaintiff may offer the defendant the added challenge of uncovering his real name. We sometimes speak of litigation as a search for the truth, but the parties ought not have to search for each other's true identity. Rule 10(a) requires that the name of the parties be disclosed in the complaint; Rule 11 forbids lying in pleadings, motions,...

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