Steffan v. Cheney

287 U.S. App. D.C. 143, 920 F.2d 74 (1990)

 

RULE:

Although the district court has broad discretion in choosing a sanction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37, no sanction may be upheld if its imposition was based upon an error of law.

FACTS:

Appellant former midshipman resigned from the United States Naval Academy in 1987, after an administrative board recommended that he be discharged. He filed an action claiming that he was constructively discharged and challenged the constitutionality of the regulations that provided for the discharge of admitted homosexuals. The district court dismissed the appellant's action against the Secretary of Defense after the appellant invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in refusing to answer deposition questions directed as to whether he had engaged in homosexual conduct during or after his tenure as a midshipman. The appellate court reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

ISSUE:

Did the district court err in dismissing appellant’s actions against the Secretary of Defense for failure to comply with its discovery order?

ANSWER:

Yes.

CONCLUSION:

Although a district court had broad discretion in choosing a sanction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37, no sanction could be upheld if its imposition was based on an error of law. The district court erred in finding the inquiry into homosexual conduct vel non to be relevant because the fact that the former midshipman sought reinstatement as relief for an allegedly invalid separation did not place into issue the question whether he engaged in potentially disqualifying conduct unless such conduct was a basis for his separation.

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