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

November 20, 1995|PAMELA WARRICK | 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.

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