03 October 2008


An extraordinary number of people, institutions, and inanimate objects have wronged Tyrone Hurt. In just the last couple of years, Hurt has sued the Declaration of Independence, Black’s Law Dictionary, the United Nations, agencies of the District of Columbia and the Federal Government, and various courts and their officers. Hurt has claimed the existence of state supreme courts violates the Eighth Amendment, requested the Secret Service and the President’s Cabinet be declared unconstitutional, and demanded the deportation of a Spanish-speaking government employee.

Nor are the slights Hurt suffered mere glancing blows; he routinely demands trillions of dollars in damages.

From the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The appellate court revoked his permission to file appeals without paying filing fees, dismissed forty-four pending cases from him, and barred him from filing future civil appeals without paying the required fees.

There is a whole subculture of people who abuse the court system, tax collection system, and the public records document filing systems in weird ways disconnected from reality. Most, however, draw from a core, relatively unimaginative set of crank theories involving the nature of citizenship, a few dozen myths of about the legality of the tax system, and the legitimacy of the government.

None of them would have been so creative as to have sued the Declaration of Independence, or Black's Law Dictionary, and I can't even begin to fathom how state supreme courts could violate the Eighth Amemdment -- other amendment's perhaps, but not that one.

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of the impact of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill on litigation like Hurt's.

I would be the first to acknowledge that there are meritorious in forma pauperis cases (the U.S. Supreme Court considers a number on the merits every year, often ruling in litigant's favor), and that many involve run of the mill fact situations.

But, it is also undeniable that in forma pauperis litigation by people without lawyers (called pro se parties), in suits against the government or people affiliated with it, lack procedural and/or substantive merit in the overwhelming majority of cases (easily exceeding 90%).

It is notable that the very mild sanction of denying someone permission to pursue litigation without payment of filing fees (which are trivial compared to attorneys fees in typical lawsuits), can have a dramatic impact on the amount of non-meritorious claims filed without further judicial intervention.

The status quo raises two concerns.

One fear is that these individuals impose an economic burden on the court system, public officials and government lawyers. They do impost a cost, but, in my experience these cases can usually be dispatched quickly in an initial motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment brought early on in a case, and the judicial system is quite efficient in processing non-meritorious claims through magistrate and law clerk review of pleadings in a timely manner compared to other civil litigation.

The greater lurking fear that I have is that the deludge of non-meritorious pro se, in forma pauperis lawsuits harden judicial officials against these kinds of cases in general, even when they do have merit.

There are also two classes of cases that are a concern.

The more common situation is that of prisoner's petitions, which is already the subject to special (and in my opinion not terribly well crafted) federal legislation. Special constitutional concerns are present in this kind of case, since the vast majority of cases involve constitutional rights, the vast majority of litigants are indigent so filing fees could in addition to banning non-meritorious cases also ban a whole class of valid cases from securing review, and state action is an important reason by the petitioner's cannot afford to pay the filing fees. Most of these cases either seek collateral review of convictions, or concern prison conditions.

The less common situation involves pro se, in forma pauperis cases brought by non-prisoners. One alternative to the current approach of having judges ruling on motions to waive the requirement to pay filing fees, would be require filing fees in all cases and to establish a charitable foundation to pay the filing fees (typically a few hundred dollars per case) of people unable to afford to pay them. Nothing would prevent private parties who felt that this charitable foundation was too restrictive to do likewise.

Presumably, far fewer non-meritorious pro se party cases would be filed, particular by repeat frivilous litigants, in this kind of system. The fees that were filed would help pay for the costs that these cases impose upon the judicial system. This would improve the credibility of pro se parties generally in the court system, and would also provide a useful screening tool for lawyers considering taking on pro bono clients.


Dex said...

now this guy would make a cool movie. or at least an awesome episode of 'law and order.'

Anonymous said...

AO: "But, it is also undeniable that in forma pauperis litigation by people without lawyers (called pro se parties), in suits against the government or people affiliated with it, lack procedural and/or substantive merit in the overwhelming majority of cases (easily exceeding 90%)."

Just out of curiosity, Andy, out of which orifice did you pull that statistic? Let's just say that I have a pretty good idea.

It kind of reminds me of the true joke about attorneys -- that the 98% who are sociopaths ruin the reputation of the 2% who are honest.

Anonymous said...

And while you're at it, genius, learn how to spell "frivolous." Aren't competent attorneys supposed to have command of the language?

Anonymous said...

It takes a trained lawyer to come up with a really frivolous lawsuit. Problem is, when a lawyer (and especially, a fellow judge) brings it, he is granted a lot more latitude than the pro se litigant. Case in point:

Pearson v. Chung, the case of a Washington, D.C. judge, Roy Pearson, who sued a dry cleaning business for $67 million (later lowered to $54 million), has been cited[12] as an example of frivolous litigation. According to Pearson, the dry cleaners allegedly lost his pants (which he brought in for a $10.50 alteration) and refused his demands for a large refund. Pearson believed that a 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' sign in the window of the shop legally entitled him to a refund for the cost of the pants, estimated at $1,000. The $54 million total also included $2 million in "mental distress" and $15,000 which he estimated to be the cost of renting a car every weekend to go to another dry cleaners.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frivolous_litigation

Anonymous said...

And then, there is this beauty, brought by former United States Attorney Phillip Berg (who also sued George Bush for complicity in 9/11, but at least he had a client):


Andy, don't you professional attorneys learn the basics of standing in law school?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

My numbers come from court statistics and my experience defending such cases, and a life long interest in them. I admit that my blog posts are not polished, typo free, pieces.