Serial Suers and Vexatious Litigants: Can Courts Prevent Someone From Filing a Lawsuit?

The vexatious litigant is a problem that civil litigation attorneys very likely encounter at least once during their careers.  It is a well-accepted precept that courts exist, in part, for citizens to seek redress for their claimed civil wrongs.  But can a person abuse the privilege?  The Supreme Court of Virginia held that a person can indeed abuse that privilege, in its June 8, 2017 opinion in Dora L. Adkins v. CP/IPERS Arlington Hotel LLC, Record No. 160685.

While not a typical case involving an appeal on the merits, the Adkins decision was written upon a petition for a rehearing and a rule to show cause.  A petition for rehearing is a litigant’s request that a court, after already having ruled on a matter, give the losing litigant another opportunity to argue his or her position.  A rule to show cause is a court order which commands a person to appear before the court and provide good cause as to why that person should not be held in contempt of court (and potentially fined and/or imprisoned).  A rule to show cause is typically issued when a party misbehaves in the presence of the court, ignores a subpoena, or otherwise interferes with the administration of justice.

In the Adkins decision, the Court faced a decision as to whether to impose a pre-filing injunction against Ms. Adkins.  A pre-filing injunction is a court order that orders the clerk of the court not to accept a lawsuit or other filing from a particular person without the lawsuit meeting certain conditions.  A pre-filing injunction is an extreme remedy and courts hesitate to enter them, given that courts exist, in part, to allow people to redress their alleged wrongs.

To answer the question, the Court first reviewed Ms. Adkins’ history of litigation.  In the case at issue, Ms. Adkins sued a hotel alleging that her “room had an unpleasant odor, no bath soap, [and] a large stain on the carpet . . . .”  She also alleged that she suffered headaches due to a certain chemical being used on the hotel room’s door lock.  She also claimed that the housekeeping staff at the hotel was instructed to watch her, amongst many other questionable allegations.  The case was ultimately dismissed with prejudice at the trial court level.  Ms. Adkins sought an appeal from the Supreme Court of Virginia, which request was ultimately denied.

In addition to this suit, Ms. Adkins had previously filed over 14 different suits against various hotels in Northern Virginia.  Ms. Adkins also filed 27 petitions for appeal with the Supreme Court of Virginia since 2009.  She also filed 21 petitions for rehearing with the Supreme Court of Virginia.  She also filed at least 41 pro se (not represented by counsel) lawsuits in Northern Virginia.  Her litigation history included many types of defendants, ranging from restaurants to car dealerships to insurance companies.

The Court found that Ms. Adkins was a vexatious litigant and had interfered with the administration of justice.  The Court admitted that it had never before expressly ruled that a pre-filing injunction was permissible to impose on litigants.  The Court noted, however, that courts have the power to protect themselves from harassing conduct that interferes with the judicial process.

The Court ultimately adopted the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ (the federal circuit court of appeals that encompasses Virginia) framework and held that pre-filing injunctions are appropriate in certain circumstances.

The Court decided that the factors a court should look at in determining whether to enter a pre-filing injunction are: (i) a history of filing vexatious and duplicative lawsuits, (ii) without any good faith basis, (iii) at the expense of opposing parties and the court system, and (iv) the adequacy of alternative sanctions to stop the abuse.  The Court specifically noted that imposing sanctions (monetary and other penalties) against Ms. Adkins would not be sufficient to curb the abuse because she could still persist in filing pleadings even if sanctions were imposed.

After considering all of these factors, the Court imposed the pre-filing injunction against Ms. Adkins.  Accordingly, Ms. Adkins is prohibited from filing any further pleading whatsoever with the Court unless she (i) hires a Virginia attorney, or (ii) obtains permission from the Court.

Vexatious litigants are a real and expensive problem in the legal system.  Vexatious litigants are frequently seen in the area of trust and estates litigation.  This is because few things are as personal and important as one’s family, legacy, and inheritance.  Consequently, it is quite common to see parties representing themselves and filing lawsuits to sue family members and contest wills and trusts.  This reality can result in potentially frivolous and expensive litigation which must be defended by innocent executors, trustees, and other family members.  Future cases will determine the scope and reach of Adkins in estate litigation cases.

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