Barash v. Kates, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2008 WL 4922787 (S.D.Fla. Jun 25, 2008)

Serial litigation by vexatious litigants in trusts-and-estates proceedings and how courts go about dealing with them has been a frequent topic on this blog [click here, here, here]. The take-away from these cases is: [1] if your client is on the receiving end of lawsuit, after lawsuit, after lawsuit by an abusive litigant, counsel patience: courts will bend over backwards to accommodate litigants whose conduct is far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior for very long periods of time prior to taking action to stop future abuses; and [2] you don’t have to put up with this garbage forever, there is a tipping point, and once you’ve reached it, courts do have the authority to tailor appropriate protective measures.

The linked-to case is helpful because it delivers on three fronts:

  • it provides yet another concrete example of how bad things have to get before a court will step in and take action against an abusive litigant continuously filing new lawsuits against your client [i.e., these facts help you manage your client’s expectations];
  • it summarizes the law you’ll need to cite if you’re ever confronted with a vexatious litigant whose making your life and the life of your client miserable; and
  • it gives you an example of the type of protective order you’ll want entered to stop the madness.

The Facts:

You’ll have to read the opinion for all the details, but note that the plaintiff whose conduct is the subject of the linked-to order had been litigating against the defendants over inheritance issues for over seven years (since 2001) in both state and federal courts in Florida, Colorado and New York. Again, the point to take away here is that you’ll probably have to put up with years of abuse before a court will enter a protective order against future vexatious litigation (that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for sanctions as soon as the other side goes crazy on you).

The Law:

Here’s how Judge Hopkins summarized the law in the 11th circuit regarding a court’s inherent authority to curb future abuses by vexatious litigants:

The 11th Circuit has long recognized the court’s ability to protect itself from abusive litigants. See Procup v. Strickland, 792 F.2d 1069, 1071-1074 (11th Cir.1986) (en banc) (affirming in part order of district court enjoining pro se litigant from filing any cases unless represented by counsel). See also United States v. Hintz, 229 Fed. App’x 860, 861 (11th Cir.2007) (citing Procup, 792 F.2d at 1073-1074). The Court has also stated that district courts have the authority to impose “serious restrictions” on a litigant’s ability to bring matters to court without an attorney. See Procup, 792 F.2d at 1070. “Federal courts have both the inherent power and the constitutional obligation to protect their jurisdiction from conduct which impairs their ability to carry out Article III functions.” Martin-Trigona v. Shaw, 986 F.2d 1384, 1386-1387 (11th Cir.1993) (quoting Procup, 792 F.2d 1069)). As a result, “considerable discretion is necessarily reposed in the district court” to draft orders enjoining abusive litigation tactics. See Martin-Trigona, 986 F.2d at 1387 ( citing Procup, 792 F.2d at 1074). See also May v. Hatter, No. 00-4115-Civ-Moore, 2001 WL 579782, *4 (S.D.Fla. May 15, 2001) (quoting Martin-Trigona, 986 F.2d at 1387) (citing Procup, 792 F.2d at 1074). Such orders may be appropriate to protect both the courts and its staff, as well as the rights of all litigants in the federal system. See Procup, 792 F.2d at 1071-1072 (noting that the claims of all other litigants suffer when a single litigant files “upwards of a lawsuit a day,” and that every lawsuit filed, no matter how frivolous or repetitious, requires the investment of court time, whether the pleadings are reviewed by a law clerk, staff attorney, magistrate, or judge).

Courts can be creative in fashioning appropriate injunctions against abusive litigation tactics. See Procup, 792 F.2d at 1072-1073. See also Hintz, 229 Fed. App’x at 861 (citing Procup, 792 F.2d at 1073-1074). For example, courts have entered orders which (1) enjoin “prisoner litigants from relitigating specific claims or claims arising from the same set of factual circumstances;” (2) require “litigants to accompany all future pleadings with affidavits certifying that the claims being raised are novel, subject to contempt for false swearing;” and, (3) direct “the litigant to seek leave of court before filing pleadings in any new or pending lawsuit.” Procup, 792 F.2d at 1072-1073) (citations omitted; other examples of court orders omitted). See also Hintz, 229 Fed. App’x at 861 (noting that the court has approved order limiting further pleadings without order of the court, after the complaint has been filed); Martin-Trigona, 986 F.2d at 1387 (noting that the Eleventh Circuit “has upheld pre-filing screening restrictions on litigious plaintiffs.”) (citing Copeland v. Green, 949 F.2d 390 (11th Cir.1991); Cofield v. Alabama Public Serv. Comm., 936 F.2d 512, 517-18 (11th Cir.1991)).

Moreover, courts may enjoin not only the abusive litigant, but also those working in concert with them, or at the behest of the litigant. See Martin-Trigona, 986 F.2d at 1287-1389 (affirming order of district court which applied equally to Martin-Trigona and “persons or entities acting at his behest, at his direction or instigation, or in concert with him.”) The only limitation on the court’s discretion to enjoin abusive litigation is that courts are not permitted to completely bar all access to the courts. See Procup, 792 F.2d at 1074. Should an injunction be entered, abusive litigants may be sanctioned for violating the injunction. See Martin-Trigona, 986 F.2d at 1389 (affirming order dismissing lawsuit filed by the mother of Martin-Trigona, because the mother acted in concert with her son to violate previous court order); May, 2001 WL 579782 at *5 (dismissing lawsuit with prejudice after abusive litigant violated injunction three times) (citing World Thrust Films, Inc. v. Int’l Family Enter., Inc., 41 F.3d 1454, 1456 (11th Cir.1995)).

The Remedy:

Here’s the remedy granted by Judge Hopkins. Note that this type of remedy is typical: it doesn’t close the courtroom doors to the abusive litigant, but it does make the litigant jump through a series of hoops prior to granting him future access to the court system. If you read the case you’ll also note that this remedy is being granted in addition to personal sanctions being entered against the abusive litigant.

1.) Philip Barash is ORDERED to cease filing any further pleadings unless Ordered by this Court, or unless prior approval is obtained by this Court.

2.) In order to obtain court approval to file any pleading, Philip Barash is ORDERED to abide by the following procedure. Failure to follow such procedure may result in the dismissal, striking, or denial of the Motion or offending pleading, or other sanctions.

First, Barash shall file with the Court a “Motion for Court Approval to File Pleading,” wherein he shall (a) state that he seeks the Court’s approval to file a particular pleading; (b) explain the legal purpose or basis of the pleading; and, (3) describe the nature of the pleading with specificity.

Second, Barash shall attach as a clearly labeled exhibit to the “Motion for Court Approval to File Pleading” the pleading he seeks to file.

Third, the filing of any “Motion for Court Approval to File Pleading” shall also comply with all aspects of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the Local Rules for the Southern District of Florida (including service on Defendant, the submission of motions only to the Clerk of Court, and no direct correspondence to Chambers).

3.) This Order shall apply to Barash and anyone working in concert with him, at his direction, or at his behest, including, but not limited to his wife Sandra, or any other family members, friends, associates, or acquaintances.

4.) IT IS FURTHER ORDERED THAT Defendant Kates need not respond to any of Barash’s filings which may be filed subsequent to this Order, unless Ordered by this Court.

5.) Any violations of this Order may result in sanctions.