‘Vexatious Litigant’ Gets on Court Officials’ Cases
It’s not easy being John Luckett.
“I feel like society is always beating me up,” said the 25-year-old aspiring lawyer from Anaheim, who has sued everyone from ex-employers to car salesmen to his former landlady. “All I want is justice.”
But after more than 11 lawsuits and more than 40 appeals, the scales of justice seem to be tired of getting weighted down by Luckett’s litigation.
Court officials say they believe he is the only person in the county to be officially declared a “vexatious litigant"--a legal term for a courthouse nuisance.
The appellate court justices, who branded Luckett a vexatious litigant in a published opinion last July because of his “frivolous” appeals and motions, also prohibited him from filing any new lawsuits without the court’s permission.
But despite the court order, Luckett tried to file another complaint without judicial approval, this time against a bank that didn’t let him open a checking account. Because Luckett didn’t get permission for the suit, Superior Court Judge James P. Gray last month found that he was in contempt of court and slapped him with an order that he perform 16 hours of community service.
“Judge Gray can’t do this to me,” Luckett fumed in a recent interview. “I’m on state disability. I suffer from stress and depression and he wants me to pick up trash. . . . It was a dirty rotten thing to do.”
But last week, Luckett performed janitorial chores at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Fullerton and the Anaheim YMCA. Luckett now says he’s planning to take legal action against the judge and has filed a worker’s compensation complaint against the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, the organization in charge of community service, because the work caused him stress.
For more than half a decade, Luckett has been a familiar face at the county’s courthouses. Although he has no law degree and has never been to college, Luckett has known success in the courtroom. He claims to have won about $9,000 from all his battles.
Yet, he’s also known ample defeat. He’s been fined, rebuked and essentially told to get lost by many judges.
It got so bad a couple of years ago in Orange County Superior Court that a judge restricted the amount of time he could be in the courthouse and had marshals follow him around the building because the clerks were afraid to deal with him.
Luckett said he “yelled at a clerk” once when he became frustrated about a case, but didn’t mean any harm.
“This kind of litigant presents some problems,” said Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald E. Smallwood, noting that Luckett’s court filings--many of which are dismissed for lack of legal merit--can be a drain on the already overtaxed system.
Smallwood, who was well aware of Luckett and has dealt with him on a few occasions, said he can be a very “determined” litigant.
Justice Edward J. Wallin of the 4th District Court of Appeal chuckled when Luckett’s name was mentioned. “He’s been a regular customer here,” he said.
Appellate court justices issued their opinion on Luckett after receiving 43 appeals from him, 20 relating to one case alone.
“He repeatedly brought frivolous motions and appeals,” said Wallin, who was not involved in the court’s opinion on Luckett. He agreed with Smallwood that people such as Luckett can be a burden on the courts, but Wallin said he was more concerned about the legal costs to the people being sued.
“Every time he files something, he forces the other side to defend itself at considerable expense,” Wallin said.
Once, a judge ordered Luckett to pay his opponent’s attorneys’ fees when he lost a case against his former high school in Cypress. The attorneys agreed not to try to collect the money if Luckett stopped taking them to court.
“I’m sure he’s very sincere about his causes,” Wallin said. But “like a lot of laymen, he doesn’t understand the intricacies of the law.”
It’s not from lack of trying, however.
Binders and boxes of court documents line his apartment in Anaheim, where he crafts his lawsuits on a tiny electric typewriter.
Luckett filed his first case when he was 16. It was a small claims case against a telemarketing company he had worked for. He claimed that they didn’t pay him his full wages. He won $162, but never collected the money, he said.
After a few more small claims cases, Luckett said he filed his first Superior Court case at age 19. It was against his high school. He contended that school officials admitted him into a hospital in Orange and placed him under psychiatric care for three days.
“They said I was on drugs, but I wasn’t, I was just hyperactive and I liked school,” Luckett said.
The case was ultimately dismissed, but not before Luckett added other defendants, including the hospital, the county, two cities and his former landlady.
“The paperwork he filed was overwhelming,” said Donna M. Bateman, one of the attorneys in that case. “He filed everything he could and some things he couldn’t. . . . He’s just a nuisance.
“He thinks he’s a lawyer. It just got out of hand. . . . To him it’s a game.”
From there, Luckett went on to sue ex-employers, including four security guard agencies. Once he sued a bank, claiming he was mistreated by a teller when he tried to exchange pennies for larger denominations of currency.
But the case that has become an obsession for Luckett in recent years has been his dispute against a now-defunct used car dealership, Luckett vs. Jim Smathers Cypress Nissan Inc.
He claims he’s won tens of thousands of dollars from the dealership and others connected to the case in “default judgments"-- awards that he won only because the other side failed to respond to the suit. The judgments were later set aside by judges, however, when attorneys persuaded the courts that they had not been made aware of the lawsuit. Ultimately, the case was dismissed.
“I’m not going to let them get away with this,” said Luckett, who noted that he has filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court just two weeks ago. “I can’t get any justice in Orange County anymore.”
As he pored over reams of documents in the case at his apartment, he said he is as determined to win now as he was six years ago when the case was first filed.
“Once I get the money that’s owed me, I’d like to go to law school and become a lawyer,” he said. “When I’m a lawyer, I won’t be pushed around anymore.”