A vexatious litigant is a person who files multiple lawsuits, without legitimate grounds, with the intention of harassing or quieting another person. A vexatious litigant may file lawsuits that are frivolous, burdensome, and/or unwarranted, and the filing of such lawsuits is considered an abuse of the legal system. Vexatious litigants may suffer sanctions as a result of their malicious behavior. To explore this concept, consider the following vexatious litigant definition.
Definition of Vexatious Litigant
- A person who files multiple lawsuits with the intention of annoying or subduing the other party.
1896 England’s Vexatious Actions Act
What is a Vexatious Litigant
A vexatious litigant is someone who files multiple lawsuits against another person for the purpose of “burying him in paper.” For example, a vexatious litigant is inspired to file a lawsuit against another person so as to harass the that person, or to otherwise quiet him on an issue. Usually, a litigant will not be deemed “vexatious” after filing only one lawsuit. He becomes vexatious after having a pattern of instigating frivolous legal actions over a period of time. If these types of lawsuits are filed by an attorney, he and his firm may be risking sanctions by the court, and perhaps eventual disbarment. Some jurisdictions actually publish lists of people who have a history of abusing the legal system.
For example, the state of California maintains a list of individuals and entities declared vexatious litigants by the courts. This list is updated monthly, and made available to the public on the court’s website.
Because attorneys and their firms recognize that filing vexatious lawsuits could get them disbarred, they typically refuse to represent vexatious litigants. Therefore, vexatious litigants are often found to be acting pro se (“on one’s own behalf”), or representing themselves in the courtroom. If a litigant has been found to be vexatious by the courts, they are then usually forbidden from taking any further legal action. Else, they are required to obtain permission from a senior judge before pursuing any legal action in the future.
In liberal democratic jurisdictions, judges are reluctant to call someone a vexatious litigant. This is because the practice of vexatious litigation is taken very seriously, and judges would rather not censor someone who wishes to bring his case before the courts.
Vexatious Litigant Legislation
In California, vexatious litigant legislation defines a vexatious litigant as someone who has engaged in any of the following behaviors:
1. Filing of Frivolous Lawsuits
Vexatious litigant legislation describes a vexatious litigant as one who has filed at least five lawsuits in the past seven years in courts other than small claims. The suits must have been determined to have been made adversely toward the other party, and/or were unjustifiably allowed to remain in a pending status for at least two years. This means that the Plaintiff never pursued the case to a hearing or trial – keeping the defendant tied to the matter – with no legitimate reason to explain why this never happened.
2. Re-Litigating an Action
California’s vexatious litigant legislation also defines a vexatious litigant as one who repeatedly re-files, or attempts to re-file, a lawsuit after a decision has already been made in the case. For example, a vexatious litigant may challenge the validity of the decision, or any of the other issues of fact or law, that are made in the case, in an attempt to “nit-pick” the decision.
3. Wastes Paper and Time
A plaintiff can be found to be a vexatious litigant if he repeatedly files motions, pleadings, or other papers, or engages in unnecessary discovery, all of which are nothing but a waste of time, adding nothing to the case. These are considered frivolous tactics that are intended to do nothing more than cause delays, and waste the time of everyone involved, from the attorneys to the courts.
4. Has a History
It goes without saying that an example of a vexatious litigant is a person who has been previously declared to be a vexatious litigant by any state or federal court. This is especially true if the lawsuit the litigant is filing is similar or identical to any facts or events that have been previously filed. Those who have been found to have filed vexatious litigation in the past are typically required to represent themselves in any lawsuits going forward. This is to prevent attorneys and their firms from risking their reputations and livelihoods in defending vexatious litigation.
It is important to note that lawsuits can be considered frivolous after a final determination has been made in the action. Appeals do not count as final determinations, nor do writs, because the existence of an appeal or writ signals that not all avenues have yet been exhausted in the matter. A judgment is final when there is nothing else that can be done in a case. If someone continues to file motions in a case where all avenues have been exhausted, then those motions can be considered so lacking in value that they are nothing more than an obvious abuse of the legal system.
Notable Vexatious Litigant Examples
Vexatious litigants can be anyone from celebrities to convicted murderers. Here are a few examples throughout history of individuals who have been determined to act as vexatious litigants, and who have since suffered the consequences as a result.
Bittaker and his partner, Roy Norris, are perhaps better known as the Toolbox Killers. The pair were convicted of torturing and murdering five women in 1979, and Bittaker has been described by the FBI as being the most disturbing individual who has ever been given a criminal profile.
Bittaker was determined to be a vexatious litigant while incarcerated in 1993, after filing 40 frivolous lawsuits against the state of California. One such lawsuit claimed he was the victim of “cruel and unusual punishment” after being served crushed sandwiches and broken cookies by the prison cafeteria staff. Bittaker is forbidden from filing any future lawsuits without the express permission of a lawyer or a judge.
Anthony Robert Martin-Trigona, better known as “Andy Martin,” has been forbidden since 1983 to file any lawsuits in federal court without prior permission of an attorney or the court. He is also banned in the state courts of Florida and New York for his history of abusing their legal systems. Martin is considered the primary source of the rumors that President Barack Obama was a Muslim, and he even filed a lawsuit in the state of Hawaii demanding that Obama’s birth certificate be released.
Insofar as his prior history of acting as a vexatious litigant, Martin has filed several motions that were allegedly anti-Semitic in nature. For instance, in a 1983 bankruptcy case, he filed a motion that called the judge a “crooked, slimy Jew who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race.” In another motion written that same year, Martin stated: “I am able to understand how the Holocaust took place, and with every passing day feel less and less sorry that it did.” Martin later claimed that these remarks were not written by him but were inserted into his court papers by spiteful judges.
The Church of Scientology
The Church of Scientology, and individual Scientologists themselves, have been declared vexatious litigants due to their filing of several lawsuits that have been determined to “destroy their opponents, rather than to resolve an actual dispute over trademark law or any other legal matter,” as per the United States District Court of California in a case decided in 1996.
The Court went on to say that lawsuits like the one filed by the Church here “… constitutes ‘extraordinary, malicious, wanton and oppressive conduct.’ … It is abundantly clear that plaintiffs sought to harass the individual defendants and destroy the church defendants through massive over-litigation and other highly questionable litigation tactics. The Special Master has never seen a more glaring example of bad faith litigation than this.”
In this particular case, the Church sued Robin Scott, complaining that Scott had stolen several of its documents and copied them before giving them back to the Church, thereby infringing upon the Church’s copyright. The Church sought an injunction to protect its trade secrets, however the Court reasoned that the damages the Church would incur if the injunction was granted would be higher than the rewards they would reap. Because the lawsuit would never have been successful on its merits, it was deemed frivolous and malicious by the Court.
Jonathan Lee Riches
In a textbook example of vexatious litigation, former federal prisoner Jonathan Lee Riches filed over 2,600 lawsuits in several U.S. District Courts over a period of only six years. Among his other crimes, Riches allegedly drove to Connecticut – in violation of the terms of his parole – and impersonated the uncle of Adam Lanza, the shooter involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre back in December of 2012.
Riches has sued celebrities such as blogger Perez Hilton, singer Britney Spears, and even the creators of the Grand Theft Auto video game series. Against the latter, Riches filed a request for a temporary restraining order in April of 2008, claiming that the defendants “put [him] in prison.” He went on to argue that the Defendants had “put [him] in prison,” and that because of the popularity of the content they created, Riches was forced to face “imminent danger from violent inmates who played Grand Theft Auto who will knock me out and take my gold Jesus cross.”
Other famous defendants sued by Jonathan Lee Riches include:
- Bill Belichick, Coach of the New England Patriots
- Michael Vick, former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons
- Jeff Gordon, NASCAR driver
- President George W. Bush
- Martha Stewart
- Steve Jobs
He also filed lawsuits against the Somali pirates, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Several of Riches’ lawsuits have been dismissed as being “frivolous” or “malicious,” or for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. As a result, Riches has been prohibited from proceeding in forma pauperis (“in the character or manner of a pauper”). This means that he is no longer permitted to file papers without paying the normal fees that are charged for filing a lawsuit or appeal.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Appeal – An application made to a higher court that asks for a lower court’s decision in the matter to be reversed.
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Litigation – The process of taking legal action; the process of suing someone, or trying them for a criminal act.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Writ – An order issued by a court that prohibits someone from taking action, or demands that he abstain from taking action, on a particular matter.