Courting Trouble : A Unique Law Turns the Tables on Those Who File Numerous or Frivolous Lawsuits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They sue neighbors, family and, sometimes, their friends. Handling their own filings without attorneys, they sue their grocers, doctors, landlords, even the judges who hear their cases. And if they happen to be incarcerated, they sue their jailers as well.

In the State of California, the courts have a word for such litigants: "vexatious."

Or, according to some of the people they sue, vexing, annoying, aggravating, irritating, E-X-A-S-P-E-R-A-T-I-N-G.

And as of Oct. 13, there are agonizingly more of them than at any time in the history of the state's unique vexatious litigant law.

That is the day the Judicial Council of California last updated its official Vexatious Litigant List to accommodate 222 of the state's most outspoken--some say outrageous--citizens.

Lawrence Bittaker, who joined the list in 1993, is a state convict who has filed more than 40 lawsuits, including one against his prison cafeteria for serving him a broken cookie.

Carroll Dean Williams, the first to make the list from Ventura County, won his spot after filing two dozen Superior Court cases in a row, including three against the City of Ventura and its officers for causing him "emotional distress" by refusing to allow him to say everything he wanted to say at city council meetings.

Leslie Erenyi was declared a vexatious litigant two years ago after he repeatedly filed, refiled, amended and re-amended what one judge termed "incomprehensible" arguments against a hospital and its doctors for allegedly misdiagnosing his heart ailment.

Unlike other citizens who may bring lawsuits any time they wish, with or without attorneys, vexatious litigants are barred from filing suits without attorneys or without a judge's special permission.

Some vexatious litigants also may be required to post substantial bonds to cover any court costs their unwitting defendants might incur.

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According to national judicial experts, no other state has anything quite like California's Vexatious Litigant List.

Little known even within the state, the vexatious litigant designation was designed to prevent frivolous, unfounded, intentionally tormenting lawsuits from clogging the overburdened judicial system. The list is published quarterly and accessible to every court officer in California.

The law defining what makes a litigant legally vexatious is only 5 years old. But as far back as 1984, the state's judges were issuing orders to sharply curtail vexing litigants' access to the courts.

The 1990 law that codified judges' blacklisting power identifies as vexatious those people who go to court without attorneys and repeatedly file "unmeritorious motions" or engage in other "frivolous tactics . . . solely intended to cause unnecessary delay."

Another way to get on the list is to lose as few as five lawsuits in a seven-year period. But most on the list have filed many, many more than that.

One early member of the listing, for example, wasn't considered sufficiently vexatious until he had filed 200 lawsuits. (And that was not counting his 300 administrative complaints of police misconduct.)

For those who believe they have many urgent and legitimate grievances to bring against the world, being categorized as something of an official bother can be almost unbearable.

The very idea makes Leslie Erenyi, for one, want to file another suit.

When contacted recently for an interview, Erenyi--a vexatious litigant since 1993--sounded excited.

"You have reached me at the absolutely optimum moment because I am filing an extremely important brief," he said.

The proposed suit, Erenyi explained, will "challenge once and for all this outrageously constitutionally deviant, criminally instrumental act known as the State Code of Civil Procedure Section 391.7. That being the vexatious litigant law."

Like many on the state's list, Erenyi, a Montrose physicist, has enough knowledge about the law to write, file and present his own cases.

Having been born in a country where individual rights were limited, he said he has great reverence for the constitutional guarantees that American citizenship provides. Erenyi believes free access to the courts is his indisputable right.

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"That's the thing with these folks. They are smart. They love the law, in their way. They just don't respect it," observed one beleaguered San Gabriel Valley court supervisor.

Day after day, he said, he is beaten down, on paper, by phone, even in person, by "these lawyer wanna-bes, who are liable to sue anybody in sight. "

For this reason, he doesn't want his name printed.

"I have sent more people to vexatious litigant land than just about any clerk in the county," he boasted as he showed off a basement full of boxes with the "frivolous, sometimes venomous" products of his courthouse's most vexatious litigants.

But the fact that there are twice as many names on the vexatious list now than there were in 1990, when California toughened its law, says as much about the boldness of plaintiffs as it does about the waning patience of courthouse staffs.

Say what you will, these litigants have chutzpah.

Among those recently added to the list is a paralegal with a knack for signing famous attorneys' names to his own legal pleadings. When he was found out, he sued the lawyers whose names he had forged.

Another newly classified vexatious litigant was renting a room in a large home in the San Fernando Valley when he set about filing dozens and dozens of suits against his friends and family members. When he went to court to have his landlord evicted from her own home, the city attorney said, "Enough!"

Any defendant--lawyer or lay person--may request a vexatious litigant order from a court.

The frequent subjects of such orders are civic gadflies, mentally unbalanced persons, tax protesters and criminals.

But once in a while, there is a ruined businessman like the Beverly Hills contractor who can no longer afford the retainers for his team of high-priced attorneys.

"I have had to take matters into my own hands," he explained, when asked about 34 lawsuits filed in the last four years.

He said all the suits involved his efforts to recoup monies legitimately due him or his bankrupt corporation and blamed his vexatious litigant status for his ongoing "financial ruin."

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Because the filing of lawsuits without counsel (or pro se ) requires a basic understanding of the law, many vexatious litigants are retired, unemployed or incarcerated.

"To be this vexing," said one Los Angeles County court worker, who also did not want her name used for fear of retribution from vexatious litigants, "they need to have plenty of time on their hands to hang out in law libraries and bother me on the phone getting ready for their next attack."

The worker said she has been unsuccessfully sued 11 times in the last two years for hanging up on vexatious litigants in mid-harangue. "I am not exaggerating when I say I am extremely frightened by some of these people."

A Los Angeles area veterinarian who was sued over the death of one of his elderly canine patients said life was "made a living hell" by the vexatious litigant who owned the dog.

"It's a case of no good deed goes unpunished," recalled the vet. "I was volunteering to help a rescue group and took in this dog. Next thing I know, I'm being paged at all hours, and being served with all sorts of court papers.

"The man who sued me is now on the [vexatious litigant] list, but that doesn't mean I don't still fear him. He calls the dog his son. It's in his freezer now, I believe."

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Deputy Atty. Gen. Joan Cavanagh, who deals exclusively with the exploding number of prisoner lawsuits, worries that the more vexatious litigants may someday crowd out less expert but more meritorious filings.

"When someone is repeatedly complaining about cold sandwiches and broken cookies--things that are a minor inconvenience to anyone else, the inmate with a serious complaint about conditions may get lost in the flood," she said.

"Those who know the buzzwords to use in their writs may get our attention, while the inmate who doesn't know the right legal phrases may not get through."

According to Pasadena Municipal Court Judge Judson W. Morris Jr., the vexatious litigant law is increasingly necessary in a world where "people take advantage of our justice system by filing litigation with no basis whatsoever. It is necessary to protect the victims, the people who are subjected to lawsuits designed simply to harass. These have got to be stopped."

Morris has good reason to be personally thankful for the vexatious litigant law. "Recently I declared a couple to be vexatious litigants and then had them come back and try to sue me for doing it. Luckily I was one of those protected by my own order."

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