As part of our Constitutional right to due process, an individual is allowed to bring grievances before a court. However, certain judicial policies may be enacted to deny plaintiffs from bringing suits that have already been litigated, are being brought with the intent to harass, or are frivolous. The purpose behind such policies is to make courts as efficient as possible by deterring such actions. A recent case out of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal shines a light on several of these deterrents.
In Mendonca v. Tidewater, Inc., the plaintiff sought to nullify several final judgments made by the district court. Mendonca’s list of suits stretched over four years, with multiple appeals and pleas for annulment. However, none of Mendonca’s nullity claims or his appeals were successful. In his final appeal for anulment, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down three restrictions that laid Mendonca’s long line of cases to rest.
The first of these restrictions was the court’s upholding of the defendent’s plea of res judicata and failure to state a claim. When res judicata is enacted, the court declares one of two denials. First, that the claim has been subject to a final judgment and thus no longer qualifies for an appeal, or second, that the litigant cannot bring a claim against the same party in a second claim because all claims should have been brought against that party in the initial suit. The policy considerations supporting res judicata is to preserve court resources and protect defendants from being subject to litigation multiple times, with the possibility of having to pay damages more than once. A defendant’s plea that a plaintiff has failed to state a claim goes hand-in-hand with res judicata. If res judicata is applicable, then all duplicitous claims cancelled. In Mendonca’s case, this means that there were no new claims. Since there were no such claims, the court held that Mendonca’s nu
llity actions were a failure to state a new claim.
A second deterrent to brining frivolous, harassing, or duplicitous suits is the possibility of monetary sanctions. Rules of civil procedure require that an attorney make objective inquiries into the facts of a case and the law that pertains to it. These inquiries are held to a high standard as they are seen as an attorney’s duty. This means that one’s subjective good faith inquiry is not sufficient. When an attorney files a claim, it is important that case history is analyzed to ensure that res judicata does not apply. A failure to inquire about previous claims is a failure to impose the applicable law and is essentially poor lawyering. This was the case in Mendonca’s appeal. Any attorney who objectively analyzed the situation would have known that the claim was precluded through res judicata. Yet, Mendonca proceeded. The court interpreted this as an abuse of the judicial system and an attempt to harass the defendant. This abuse justifies the imposition of sanctions.
Sanctions are typically defined as an order to pay to the other party the amount of reasonable expenses through the employment of an attorney. Yet, “reasonable” is not confined to the actual expense accrued by the attorney. Instead, “reasonable” has been interpreted to mean additional costs that act to deter, punish, and compensate. When sanctions are imposed by a trial judge they are unlikely to be appealed. Appellate judges tend to give deference to the trial judge’s intimate knowledge of the case, litigants, and attorneys. For these reasons, Mendonca was sanctioned in the amount of $10,000, all of which were upheld on appeal.
A third way that a court can punish an individual as a deterrent is to issue a sanction revoking in forma pauperis status. In forma pauperis is a legal termed used by a judge to allow a poor individual to file a legal case and/or represent oneself at trial. Allowing one to claim this status is to essentially cut most court associated costs for the needy individual in order to ensure due process. Mendonca qualified and was granted this status. However, courts have held that in forma pauperis status is a privilege, not a right. Therefore, any abuse of this status will result in revocation. The most common reason why in forma pauperis status is revoked is because one brings frivolous suits. Mendonca did this in his case and was punished accordingly.
Res judicata, sanctions, and other rules of civil procedure are complicated, requiring a full analysis of the facts and the law. Such situations should only be approached by a licensed practicing attorney.
If you have a question about any of the above mentioned issues please contact the Berniard Law Firm.