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Are Frivolous Lawsuits Legal?

The last article gave a brief but staggering glimpse into the current statistics on lawsuit abuse. The question we now turn to is the question of whether frivolous, excessive, unwarranted, or simply "strange" lawsuits even legal? An analysis of relevant legislation below reveals that there are, in fact, several measures put into place in most states that give authority to the courts to reject unnecessary allegations and filings. The last section gives a couple of examples of where courts have reimbursed court costs to attorneys defending frivolous lawsuits.

First, some loony lawsuits

Sadly, this list is no way exhaustive, as thousands across the country continue to pursue frivolous and unnecessary lawsuits either out of financial greed or simple revenge:

  • an 18-year-old Florida teen who attempted to jump from the top of one parking structure to the next and who fell six stories sued on grounds that whoever made the fence made it much too short to prevent a teen from being deterred from jumping (2005)
  • a woman at an Atlanta Braves baseball game filed a lawsuit when outfielder Andruw Jones threw a baseball into the crowd (2002)
  • a Little League player who lost a fly-ball in the sun and was hit in the eye eventually had his parents sue the coaches for $25,000
  • Another Little League parent sued his son's baseball coach for being responsible for losing games
  • a woman who claimed that a fraudulent ad in the Yellow Pages led her to a dermatologist who disfigured her in a liposuction procedure, awarding her $1.6 million
  • an inmate who filed a lawsuit blaming prison food for his flatulence problem (1999)
  • an arsonist seeking insurance coverage for destruction he caused (1999)
  • a drunken party-goer who sued police for not placing her in custody (1999)
  • a woman, now well-known Stella Liebeck, who was awarded almost $ 3 million when she burned herself by spilling a cup of coffee over he in a McDonald's Restaurant (1992)

Prison Loony Lawsuits

  • a Maryland prisoner sued prison authorities because he received a moldy cheesecake in the mail, a fault purely of the United State Postal Service.
  • a female inmate wanting an abortion sued Maryland prison officials even though she was not pregnant
  • an Indiana inmate filed a lawsuit against the state governor, lieutenant governor, and all 150 state legislators for failing to enact legislation that he wanted to see become law.

Legislation against Frivolous Lawsuits

President Bush signed legislation in February of 2005 that makes it easier to shift certain class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts. Another Bush plan sought to limit the amount of awards given to medical malpractice lawsuits, but failed in 2004. The House Judiciary Committee, in April of 2005, approved a National Rifle Association-sponsored legislative plan that would protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits (either frivolous or otherwise is unknown). In addition, the committee also supported legislation that would impose penalties on attorneys who brought forth frivolous lawsuits, in what is known as the "cheeseburger bill" after the many years of civil-litigation's focus on the restaurant industry for being responsible for America's health problems.

California

In a move that may do exactly the opposite of discouraging frivolous lawsuits, California Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a bill in January 2003 meant to curb the abuse of the state's anti-SLAPP law, and to limit big businesses and corporations from filing frivolous lawsuits against members of the public. The law's three conditions are that: the plaintiff cannot seek more awards than are sought for the general public or others of which the plaintiff is a member, the action must "enforce an important right affecting the public interest," and the action must be one in which the plaintiff has assumed a financial burden disproportionate to the plaintiff's personal stake in the matter. The legislation would also prohibit certain business owners to file anti-SLAPP lawsuits against plaintiffs suing over unfair business practices, but would allow authors, journalists, broadcasters, or media professionals to file lawsuits against plaintiffs suing for defamation. Critics, including the California Healthcare Institute, say that it will encourage frivolous lawsuits of "nuisance settlements"( Metropolitan News Enterprise September 11, 2003).

In 1998, Gov. Pete Wilson extended a law, Sec. 128.7 of the Code of Civil Procedure, that allowed trial judges to sanction attorneys who file frivolous or unwarranted lawsuits. Even without the renewal on the existing law, however, California judges may still impose sanctions on attorneys who file questionable lawsuits, and Sec. 128.5 allows courts to be reimbursed by fees incurred from groundless lawsuits or misconduct (July 13, 1998 Metropolitan News Enterprise).

Maryland

In February of 1995, The House of Representatives passed legislation that would require inmates to exhaust all possible administrative appeals before filing a lawsuit in federal court, and allowing the courts to force inmates to pay filling fees as a percentage of their savings. A camp of attorney-generals and prosecutors, in their fight against frivolous lawsuits by inmates, identified 39,000 federal cases brought by inmates in only one year, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. They also noted that Maryland's correctional litigation unit costs half a million dollars a year to deal with prisoners' claims (95% of which are won by the state).

Indiana

In Indiana, state legislators passed a bill that would also limit prisoners' ability to file frivolous lawsuits. IC 34-58-1 requires courts to conduct reviews to screen out frivolous lawsuits, which they define as those which "harass a person or lack an arguable basis either in law or fact" (The Indiana Lawyer March 10, 2004). In addition, if a court has to dismiss a prisoner's lawsuit 3 times then that prisoner is barred from filing any more actions unless the offender is in "immediate danger of serious bodily injury" - hence the law's name, the 3 Strikes Rule.

Wisconsin

Cited as a much-needed action to protect the public, Assembly Bill 855 as one of its features is a "safe harbor" rule, allowing lawyers and their clients the opportunity to withdraw their allegations within 21 days before the possibility of sanction if the party decides it doesn't have a case.

The critics against tort-reform say that civil lawsuits are a necessary protective mechanism for citizens in the face of government insensitivity and hedonism (ie: certain Watergate revelations showing Nixon's appeasement to the auto industry to let them delay air-bag introduction).

In addition to those state listed above, both Texas and Nevada have legislative measures in place that can strip an inmate's privileges if he or she brings forth a frivolous lawsuit.

Illinois

House Bill 1636 authorizes the Illinois Department of Corrections to retract good conduct credit from inmates filing frivolous suits.

Minnesota

Digest 563.01, created in 1995, allows the court to dismiss any inmate-initiated lawsuit in which an inmate cannot pay legal fees and costs if the court finds the suit is frivolous or malicious.

New Hampshire

Senate Bill 6 in 1995 is another example of the largely unfettered ability of the state to crack-down on frivolous inmate litigation.

Alaska

Under Statutes 09.19.010 (1995) prisoners are not allowed to litigate against the state unless the offender has first paid full filing fees to the court.

Arizona

Statutes 12-302, 41-1604.07 (1994) require inmates to pay filing fees and/or court costs in civil cases, protects the state from inmate injuries, allows the Attorney General to decide if inmate cases are frivolous, and permits revocation of an inmate's earned release credits if he or she has abused the process.

Colorado

Statutes 17-20-114.5 (1995) denies prisoners who sue the State or its employees many inmate privileges if the action is found to be insubstantial or malicious. Inmates can lose television, radio and entertainment access as well as loss of snacks and cigarettes.

Florida

In 1995, Florida introduced legislation meant to curb frivolous inmate lawsuits by allowing judges to reject lawsuits at filing instead of waiting for it to enter the court system.

Iowa

610A.1 (1995) requires inmates to pay all fees and costs associated with their civil action or appeal. In addition, if the action or appeal is frivolous or malicious, the offender shall lose some or all of the Good Times credits already gained.

Successful Sanctions Against Frivolous Lawsuits

One not-so-surprising statistic is that American businesses file four times more lawsuits, and are 69 percent more likely to be sanctioned for filing frivolous court cases, than individuals represented by trial attorneys, according to legal watchdog Public Citizen.

One recent case serves to illustrate the use of successful sanctions against an attorney filing a frivolous lawsuit. After Shawn Cox falsely accused his employer, Preferred Technical, for race discrimination, the court ordered he pay his employer more than $ 85,000. Cox's argument was that he was repeatedly subject to harassment in the workplace, but had supposedly contradicted himself several times in his testimony. According to the judge, Cox's lying under oath, complete fabrication of events, and groundless allegations resulted in the hefty financial penalty.

According to the Indiana Employment Law Letter (2000), the majority of employment discrimination lawsuits involve a good possibility of recovering a portion of court costs, such as reporter fees, copying costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses, for defending attorneys. However, this financial reimbursement rarely comes directly from the pocket of the losing employee. It can sometimes be recovered from the losing employee's attorney, but usually only if the attorney knew of the fabrication or misleading claims. In this case, penalties personally against the plaintiff may be substantial. The article cites another Indiana case where just such an incident occurred, with the court ordering an employee's attorney to pay costs incurred by the defending employer, finding the plaintiff had failed to adequately investigate the claims before filing the lawsuit.

In addition to the Indiana cases is a 1991 Chicago case where Cook County Circuit Judge Robert D. Ericsson ordered a lawyer and 3 other litigants to pay $ 110,000 in sanctions to the defending parties, two of which included Amtrak and Chicago-based U.S. Equities Realty Inc. The case involved a property dispute over Chicago's Union Station.

Another similar case occurred in New Jersey in 1994, Giangrasso v. Kittatiny Regional High Sch. Bd. of Education, where a student's lawyer was ordered to pay $100,000 in sanctions frivolously challenging a one-day suspension and placement on homebound instruction of his client. The student had fallen asleep during an in-school suspension period, and upon being waken by his teacher, threatened to punch his teacher in the head.

While there are many other cases involving similarly impulsive and over-aggressive cases, the reality is that lawsuits must be quite frivolous to warrant sanction by the court, and only inexcusable, or dishonest conduct on the part of the plaintiff can support any personal sanction against the attorney (Indiana Employment Law Letter, October 2000).

 


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