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How Poorly Drafted Pleadings and Bad Writing Can Hurt Your Client and You

A Summary of Cases

Kuzmin v. Thermaflo, Inc.Nos. 2:07-cv-00554-TJW, 2:08-cv-0031-TJW-CE, 2009 WL 1421173 (E.D. Tex. May 20, 2009).

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas sanctioned the plaintiff’s attorney for poor writing and violations of ethical obligations. The court noted that counsel’s brief was badly formatted and contained numerous spelling errors. Id. at *2. The court admonished the plaintiff’s attorney, stating, “By submitting a poorly written brief, the attorney fails the Court as well as the client.” Id.


Sanfilippo v. Comm’r of Social Sec.No. 8:04-CV-2079-T-27MSS, 2008 WL 1957836 (M.D. Fla. May 5, 2008).

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida greatly reduced the plaintiff’s attorney fees requested in accordance with 42 U.S.C. §406(b) and the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA)The court found that the attorney’s work was not of high quality because it did not reflect the preparation time claimed to have been invested in drafting the legal memoranda, it was replete with spelling and grammatical errors, and it contained conjecture and hyperbolic editorializations, which do not belong in legal pleadings. Id. at *4.


Ramos-Barrientos v. BlandNo. 606CV089, 2008 WL 474426 (S.D. Ga., Feb. 19, 2008).

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia ordered the plaintiffs to amend their complaint in compliance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2)’s “short and plain statement” requirement. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging that it failed to meet the requirements of F.R. Civ.P 8(a) because, in addition to being 68 pages long, it contained needless cross-referencing, “plus incoherence, plus circular and convoluted sentence structure.” Id. The court agreed with the assessment. Id.  Although it denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court explained that the “short and plain statement” requirement is not met when the complaint is composed of “page-long sentences permeated with broken clauses and cross-references.” Id. at *2. The court stated that “enough paragraphs and sentences are needlessly verbose, tangled, fractured, and repetitive as to require corrective action.” Id.


In re Shepperson, 674 A.2d 1273 (Vt. 1996).

A Vermont lawyer appealed the Professional Conduct Board’s recommendation that he be disbarred because he habitually filed pleadings that were inadequate and incomprehensible, presented unstructured and unsubstantiated legal arguments, and failed to complete a legal writing program to help him develop his legal research and writing skills. Id. at 1273-74. The attorney was suspended until he could demonstrate fitness to practice law.  Id. at 1274-75.


Am. Iron & Steel Inst. v. EPA, 115 F.3d 979 (C.A.D.C. 1997).

The court ruled against plaintiff in part because of its badly written brief. Id. The court stated, “We assume the author of these sentences understands them….Too bad [Plaintiff] did not take the trouble to educate the court. The first rule of advocacy is to make your argument understandable.” Id


Vandeventer v. Wabash Nat’l Corp., 893 F. Supp. 827 (N.D. Ind. 1995).

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana pointed out that the Magistrate Judge ordered counsel to restart the briefing process because the Defendant’s brief was “overly long” and “unfocused.” Id. at 834. In addition, counsel’s writing “was more like a stream of consciousness than an articulated legal argument.” Id. Accordingly, the court observed that the attorneys’ submissions to the court were “…on the whole, very far below the quality of work that this Court is accustomed to seeing. The Attorneys should give serious consideration to not practicing in the United State District Court until such time as they have demonstrably enhanced their practice skills.” Id. at 859.


In re Hawkins, 502 N.W.2d 770 (Minn. 1993).

The court found that the attorney engaged in unprofessional conduct because he demonstrated “a lack of writing skill” by producing legal pleadings that were incomprehensible due to their numerous spelling, grammatical, and typographical errors. Idat 171. The court publicly reprimanded the attorney and ordered him to successfully complete at least ten hours of a legal writing program and at least five hours of a law office management program. Id. at 172.


Duncan v. AT&T Communications, Inc., 668 F. Supp. 232 (S.D.N.Y. 1987).

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s discrimination claims.  The court granted the motion to dismiss partly because the plaintiff’s complaint was poorly written and lacked organization. Id. at 235. The court stated, “A complaint may be so poorly composed as to be functionally illegible. This is not to say that a complaint needs to resemble a winning entry in a writing contest…. However, the court’s responsibilities do not include cryptography, especially when the plaintiff is represented by counsel.” Id. at 234. 


In re Hogan, 490 N.E.2d 1281 (Ill. 1986).

The Supreme Court of Illinois placed an attorney on inactive bar status, concluding that he was “incapable of adequately serving the public” because he “lacked the fundamental skill of drafting pleadings and briefs.” Id. at 1281. The court ordered that the attorney come up with a rehabilitation plan, which could include obtaining the aid of “teachers or such other professions and disciplines.” Id. The attorney was ordered to remain inactive until he “demonstrated competence sufficient to engage in the practice of law.” Id.


Henderson v. State of Mississippi, 445 So. 2d 1364 (Miss. 1984).

Henderson appealed his burglary conviction, alleging legal insufficiency of the indictment, which stated that “goods, ware, and merchandise unlawfully, feloniously, and burglariously did break and enter….” Id. at 1366. Henderson offered an English teacher’s expert testimony to show that the indictment actually charged the “goods, ware, and merchandise, not Henderson, ” with burglary. Id. While the court found the indictment to be legally sufficient, it pointed out that if the rules of English grammar were a part of the state’s law, Henderson’s conviction would certainly be reversed, “for the indictment would receive an “F” from every English teacher in the land.” Id. at 1364.


Slater v. Gallman, 339 N.E.2d 863 (N.Y. 1975).

In this tax case, the New York Court of Appeals assessed costs against the Appellant because his attorney had filed a “poorly written,” 284 page brief composed of an argument that “wandered aimlessly through irrelevant matters,” and a 35 page reply brief, which created an “unwarranted burden” on the court. Id. at 864-65. 


In re Banks, 4 Cal.3d 337 (Cal. 1971).

The court granted the petitioner’s habeas corpus because a poorly written brief amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. The court explained that the petitioner’s brief was so poorly written that “[t]he most obvious conclusion to be drawn from reading [it] is that counsel gave it no thought whatsoever, but instead retyped suggestions submitted to him by petitioner, a layman. “ Id. at 217-18.