A federal judge used words like "perturbed," "irritated" and "angered" at a pretrial hearing in a civil suit Monday shortly before ordering Texarkana, Ark., Ward 2 Director Laney Harris to pay $100 in attorney fees to the opposing side.
Harris filed a complaint in the Texarkana Division of the Western District of Arkansas in June of this year against the city of Texarkana, Ark., Mayor Ruth Penney-Bell and his fellow directors alleging civil rights and state law violations connected to the city board's June 2017 censure of him and removal at the same time from the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission. As he has done in federal and state court many times in the past, Harris is representing himself.
Since filing the complaint, Harris has filed two separate motions asking the court to grant a default judgment against all the defendants. Harris' motions accuse the defendants of failing to file responses to his complaint in the 21-day time frame established in federal court proceedings.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant was openly aggravated with Harris at Monday's hearing because at least one of the motions seeking default makes a false claim.
Hot Springs lawyer Burt Newell filed an answer Aug. 24 to Harris' complaint on behalf of the City of Texarkana, Ark., Director Tim Johnson and Director Travis Odom. On Aug. 30, Harris filed a motion asking for more time to serve the defendants in the case. Newell filed an answer Sept. 5 to the complaint on behalf of Penney-Bell and Directors Barbara Miner, Terri Peavey and Linda Teeters. Harris filed a motion for default Sept. 7 against Johnson and Odom and a motion for default Oct. 5 against the mayor, Miner, Peavey and Teeters alleging they never filed a response.
Harris attached a copy of the court's docket to the motion seeking default judgments from the mayor, Miner, Peavey and Teeters which clearly shows their joint response was filed Sept. 5—well within the 21-day window and contradictory to Harris' accompanying motion.
"Only file things you know to be true," Bryant said. "If you were a lawyer doing this, you would be in not just a small amount of trouble. If you are going to represent yourself, then you are going to follow the rules."
Bryant lamented that the $100 he ordered Harris to pay Newell as compensation for his time likely "undercut" his fee and failed to address his travel expenses. Bryant followed up with formal written orders Wednesday denying both of Harris' motions.
"There was simply no basis for which Plaintiff to seek the entry of a default after each of the Defendants had filed their timely answer. Further, Plaintiff's attempts to excuse his behavior by claiming he did not receive a copy of their answer is without merit as Plaintiff attached a copy of the court docket sheet to his brief in support of the motion which clearly shows the Defendants all filed a timely answer," Bryant's order states. "In this matter, simply denying Plaintiff's Motion will not be a sufficient deterrent to future action. A review of plaintiff's previous pro se matters before this Court show several motions denied as premature, or seeking relief to which he was not entitled. Further, Plaintiff has had more than one pleading dismissed for failing to state a claim. As such, this Court finds a monetary sanction appropriate."
Bryant's order includes a warning to Harris in bold, underlined text, that future rule violations could result in more severe sanctions including a dismissal of the suit.
The 2017 censure of Harris by the board came on the heels of a harassment complaint lodged against Harris on May 4, 2017, by a hearing impaired Texarkana, Ark., woman. The woman alleged that after she ended an intimate relationship with him, Harris began threatening to call police over a lawn mower the woman said was stolen from her yard. She complained that Harris used profanity to address her in front of her 8-year-old grandson, that Harris banged on her door and yelled for her to come outside, and that Harris was watching her house, according to a Texarkana, Ark., police report.
Harris complains that witnesses identified in the police report gave false statements and that no evidence, such as photographs or recordings, substantiate the harassment complaint. Harris was warned by Texarkana, Ark., police to stay away from the woman's residence and informed that he is "banned" from her property.
Harris' federal suit also addresses two other alleged incidents cited by officials at the time of his censure. Harris was accused of having an altercation with a volunteer at the city's RailFest event in May 2017 after being confronted about furtively photographing the event. The censure made mention as well of an unauthorized walk-through Harris conducted of the city's delapidated Boy's and Girl's Club property in April 2017.
Harris alleges the censure has damaged his reputation and he is asking the federal court to declare it "null and void."
"There was an conspiracy and willful intend to violate the civil rights and constitution rights of the plaintiffs (Harris) and retaliation and public humiliate him (sic)," the federal complaint states.
A civil complaint Harris filed on his own behalf in June against two 2017 RailFest volunteers alleging defamation is currently pending as well.