Dealing with a frivolous lawsuit? Learn what to do if someone files this type of lawsuit against you and how to get it dismissed.
Love them or hate them — and many people hate them — lawsuits are a necessary part of life in the United States.
When someone injures you and refuses to take responsibility, filing a lawsuit can be the only method you have to make yourself whole. The process is difficult, but vital.
Not all lawsuits have equal value, though.
Some lawsuits have no legal merit at all. These cases are called frivolous lawsuits. More specifically, a frivolous claim is one that’s brought without regard for the quality of its legal arguments, or without key evidence.
The person who brings the suit knows the law is against them and doesn’t care, because the purpose of the filing is not to win. Sometimes this is a way to injure the person sued, and sometimes it’s a strategy to gain leverage in a negotiation.
This article will discuss the nature of frivolous claims and some strategies for fighting them.
What Counts as a Frivolous Lawsuit?
Many people casually use the term “frivolous lawsuit” to describe all personal injury lawsuits in a pejorative way.
This is a legally incorrect usage. It can also discount key facts about lawsuits that have legal merit.
For example, the “McDonald’s hot coffee” lawsuit in the ‘90s is often written off as a frivolous lawsuit.
In reality, the jury found the majority of fault was McDonalds’ and awarded punitive damages to the victim, to punish the company for its bad faith dealings.
A frivolous lawsuit is not just a lawsuit that people disagree with. It’s a lawsuit with no shot of winning, because either the facts are so clear or the law just doesn’t give the plaintiff a remedy.
Here are some common examples of frivolous lawsuits:
- A car accident lawsuit that’s filed by someone who wasn’t actually injured.
- Your neighbor sues you for trespass because your dog walked into their backyard one day when you weren’t looking.
- Someone at the corner store sues you because you weren’t wearing a mask while shopping, and now they’re afraid of catching COVID-19.
A frivolous lawsuit is different from malicious prosecution in at least one key way. While a maliciously brought case may have legal merit, a frivolous claim never does. Both are wrong, but a frivolous claim is easier to spot. Most courts also follow specific laws designed to stop frivolous cases at several points in the litigation process.
Vexatious Litigant Laws
Some states, like California, have vexatious litigant laws. Vexatious litigants are people who repeatedly bring frivolous lawsuits. These laws attempt to stop them from bringing more.
If you suspect that you have been sued by a vexatious litigant, you should check whether your state has a list of individuals who have been so designated by the courts.
If the person who sued you has been named a vexatious litigant, your state’s law will provide you with relatively straightforward ways to get the case dismissed.
Even if the person who sued you isn’t a vexatious litigant, you should check public records and judgment histories. If you find a lot, you might want to ask the court in your case to deem the person a vexatious litigant in your case.
These laws exist specifically to prevent abuse of the legal system, so they should always be your first stop.
Ask the Judge To Throw Out the Case
Frivolous lawsuits aren’t a new problem. In 1937, the federal judiciary first adopted Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Rule 11 deters bad faith court filings by requiring a party’s lawyer, law firm, or the party itself (if unrepresented) to sign all papers submitted to the court, representing that they’re not frivolous.
State courts have similar rules. Some, like Nevada, have rules that are based directly on the language of Rule 11.
Most of these rules work more or less the same way. For ease of reference, the federal rule will be referenced here. You should consult an attorney about the rules in your particular jurisdiction.
Under Rule 11, a party’s or attorney’s signature on a court document makes the following representations:
- The document is not presented for an improper purpose (e.g., harassment).
- The contents are supported by the existing law.
- There is evidence to support the facts in the document.
- Denials of fact are supported or were made due to lack of knowledge.
If any of those four representations aren’t true, the court may impose sanctions under Rule 11(b). Those sanctions can include an award of attorney’s fees to the innocent defendant or outright dismissal of the frivolous case.
There are two ways that Rule 11 can come to a court’s attention. The first way is the court setting its own hearing to determine whether a case is frivolous. Some judges review filed lawsuits for just this purpose, and they have the right to ask the parties about it if they suspect bad faith behavior.
It’s more common for the innocent party to bring a motion to dismiss the frivolous lawsuit. You can only file the motion after serving it on the offending party and a 21-day “safe harbor” period has passed. (The “safe harbor” gives a party a chance to voluntarily withdraw its frivolous filing.)
Whether the hearing is set by the court or on a party’s motion, the judge will examine the allegedly frivolous filing. If the judge believes that the case is meritless, they’ll award sanctions.
Judges rarely dismiss cases as a first sanction. They’ll usually allow a party to amend or try to fix their case before dismissing it for good.
Beat a Frivolous Case Without Trial
Another way to short-circuit a frivolous lawsuit is to show the judge that you have a superior legal case and ask them to rule on the case right now.
These motions are different from a Rule 11 motion because they present the judge with facts and arguments about the legal merits rather than just saying the lawsuit is invalid.
Being a prevailing party in a litigated lawsuit may have some benefits over getting it dismissed at the beginning. For example, you may have the opportunity to get a monetary judgment in your favor or an award of legal fees.
An attorney in your state can give you the best legal advice about whether either of these options may be useful in your case.
For a description of motions and how they work in litigation, see this case summary with a glossary of terms.
Rule 12(b)(6) — Failure To State a Claim
A motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) seeks to dismiss the lawsuit because the lawsuit doesn’t “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In other words, the wrong complained of can’t be fixed by the court because the law doesn’t recognize it as wrong.
States have their own laws dismissing these kinds of claims. For example, California uses something called a “demurrer” instead of a motion to dismiss, but the intent is the same.
For example, if someone sues you for not wearing a face mask in public, that claim should be dismissed. There is no law allowing one private citizen to sue another over a face mask. Nor is there any law stating that fear of contracting COVD-19 is an actual injury. The mask lawsuit would therefore likely be dismissed by the judge as unsupported by the law, even if all the facts are true.
Rule 56 — Summary Judgment
The other substantive option for getting rid of a bad lawsuit is a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 or similar state laws allowing summary judgment. Unlike the previous motions, a motion for summary judgment agrees that there’s a valid legal issue for the court to consider. It asks for judgment in your favor because there are no facts in dispute.
A good example of summary judgment would be a car accident case in which the plaintiff has no evidence of damages. Let’s say that you were involved in a fender bender with another motorist, who claimed that they suffered serious bodily injury. But that motorist has no medical records, bills, or any other evidentiary support to show that they were injured.
Summary judgment is appropriate in this case because there is zero evidence of an actual injury, even though a car accident is a valid basis for a claim. The lack of evidence makes a trial unnecessary, so the judge decides the case before it ever reaches the jury.
Though it’s more expensive than dismissal, having a judgment on the merits (saying you were legally in the right) in your favor can be worth the cost.
Help Yourself and Protect the System From Abuse
Being involved in a lawsuit is always unpleasant. It’s more unpleasant when you shouldn’t even be in court in the first place.
Frivolous litigation also makes legitimate lawsuits harder to win by giving the process a bad reputation.
Therefore, you have a responsibility to yourself and to legitimately injured people to stop the filing of frivolous cases.
If you’re the target of a meritless lawsuit, contact a qualified attorney in your state for a free consultation to get legal advice about your specific case.
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