'Vexatious Litigation' Order Overly Broad
(CN) - An order declaring a California attorney and her son "vexatious litigants" in a dispute over a family trust is too broad and restrictive, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
The federal appeals court cancelled pre-filing restrictions imposed against attorney Nina Ringgold and her son, Justin Ringgold-Lockhart. The 2011 order had required the pair to obtain court permission before filing "any action" relating to the Aubry Revocable Family Trust, from which Nina Ringgold was removed as a trustee in 2005.
Ringgold had challenged her removal in a series of actions in state and federal court, while also alleging that others had liquidated the trust, which was set up by the Aubry family to "empower the African- American community of South Central Los Angeles by providing for future generations," according to the appellate court.
After Ringhold lost in state court and was there declared a vexatious litigant, she filed suit in Los Angeles federal court with her son, an alleged beneficiary of the trust.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real ultimately dismissed the suit from federal court and followed the state probate court in declaring Ringhold vexatious in her personal capacity, not as an attorney. The court noted that she had filed some 37 motions in two separate federal complaints, in addition to her state court filings.
The order stated that the court would approve only those "filings that it deems to be meritorious, not duplicative, and not frivolous."
A three-judge appellate panel unanimously vacated the pre-filing order on Monday, finding that pursuing just two cases does not generally make a litigant "vexatious."
The panel also pointed out that some of the actions that led to the order had nothing to do with the case at issue. The court also failed to consider less restrictive moves to deter any allegedly "frivolous" filings, such as costs and fees, and failed to properly construct the order to address the alleged problem, the panel found.
"The scope of the order is too broad in several respects," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the panel. "By providing that the court will not allow a new action to be initiated unless the court deems the action 'meritorious,' the district court added a screening criteria that is not narrowly tailored to the problem before it, and is in fact unworkable."
"It is one thing for courts at an early stage of litigation to filter out frivolous suits," Berzon added. "Courts routinely perform this task, as the Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit frivolous filings. But courts cannot properly say whether a suit is 'meritorious' from pleadings alone. A lawsuit need not be meritorious to proceed past the motion-to-dismiss stage."
"We believe the case is about access to the court, the First Amendment, and whether citizens of the State of California may raise legitimate constitutional issues (although controversial)," Ringgold said in an email to Courthouse News. "Justice Berzon gets to the heart of things: '... [C]ourts cannot properly say whether a suit is 'meritorious' from pleadings alone.'"
"I think the courts need to take a closer look about how the term 'vexatious' is being used in the state and federal courts and whether that is consistent with the Privilege and Immunities Clause, the First Amendment petition clause, the Fifth Amendment due process clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause," she added. "It is my reasoned opinion that most Americans would not believe the petitions and grievances in the one prior complaint could have ever been viewed as 'vexatious'."