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September 17, 2010

"Feds seek to halt inmate's frequent lawsuits"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent amusing AP article. Here is how it starts:

A federal inmate who has filed more than 3,800 lawsuits and targeted the famous, the infamous and even the long-dead is now being sued by federal officials who want him to knock it off.

Federal prosecutors who say they have had enough of the frivolous filings have filed a lawsuit of their own asking a judge to take unusual action to stop Jonathan Lee Riches.  Since 2006, Riches has filed lawsuits in nearly every jurisdiction in the country, court documents show. The inmate who dubbed himself "Lawsuit Zeus" in one of his thousands of court cases has filed up to four of his handwritten petitions a day in Kentucky courts alone.

The 33-year-old inmate at the federal prison in Lexington has sued New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, former President George W. Bush, then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and even Somali pirates.  Sometimes, Riches asks for money, other times an injunction to stop alleged, if physically impossible, activity.

Among Riches' targets have been "Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party," the ancient philosopher Plato, the celestial body formerly known as the planet Pluto and the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the Guinness case, he wanted to prevent himself from being dubbed the most litigious man in America.  "These phrases (i.e. "Patrick Ewing of Suing," "Johnny Sue-nami," etc ...) hurt my feelings and violate my civil rights.  I've filed so many law suits with my pen and right hand that I got arthritis in my fingers, numbness in my wrists, crooked fingers, I got bags under my eyes for sleepless nights suing the world," Riches wrote in Riches v. the Guinness Book of Records.

Guinness spokeswoman Sara Wilcox said the book doesn't monitor litigious people and has no records concerning Riches.  Like many of his other legal claims, the lawsuit was dismissed.

September 17, 2010 at 06:14 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The lawsuit is a product. It is inherently dangerous in its ordinary use, in that it seeks to injure the defendant intentionally. The masking ideology is to make the plaintiff whole, but it is to enrich the lawyers on both sides and on the bench. That is why idiotic claims are allowed. Most are weak and fail. If this prisoner played with dynamite in prison, how would he be treated? The same should be done to him. Ideally, he should be caned, and his lawsuits should be torn up by the guards. But then, they are no more stupid and predatory than most lawsuits, so the same would have to be done to almost all tort litigators. These internal traitors have taken down our economy, and done more damage to it than Al Qaeda on 9/11. These enemies of our country should at least be sued for lawyer malpractice. But they have granted themselves, self dealt immunities. If you are unemployed, beat the ass of a tort litigator. That is the person that destroyed manufacturing, and most well paying jobs in our country.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 17, 2010 9:21:08 AM

The article is a hoot, but there is a lesson here. The lesson is that, at some point, a system that takes itself seriously (and is concerned about growing costs) simply must say NO to someone like this.

This guy is an extreme case, obviously, but he's also a symptom of the acceptance of the view that sees the prisoner as victim rather than victimizer.

My proposal is that after a prisoner's 10th suit, the courts should be required to return any other filings unopened (or simply discard them). And 10 is plenty generous.

It is not up to the prisoner to complain about other people's conduct. It's up to him to reflect on and change his own. A system as mindlessly indulgent of prisoner complaints as the one this article exposes needs reform. Getting a convict even to consider the possibility that his behavior was the problem (and thus to take the first, essential step toward rehabilitation) will be impossible as long as the law encourages him to focus on, and endlessly complain about, other people.

I will be interested to see whether our leftist commenters would -- in light of the realities exposed by this article -- go along with ANY numerical limit on prisoner suits, or whether they think the taxpayers should continue to be on the hook for a limitless barrage of nonsense.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 17, 2010 10:02:54 AM

I thought there was already a limit on prisoners filing frivolous lawsuits in federal court under 1915(g). Three strikes and you are out unless you pay the filing fee or are in imminent danger of harm. I think the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act was passed during those horrible years when that leftist commentator President Bill Clinton was in office. :P

Posted by: Jason | Sep 17, 2010 10:37:36 AM

The fact is Mr. Riches numerous lawsuits have NOT been tying up the federal courts OR defendants named in his suits.

There is, in fact, a limit on the number of federal suits that can brought by prisoners. 28 U.S.C. Section 1915(g) provides that after dismissal of the third complaint, Mr. Riches was no longer able to proceed without paying the full filing fee ($350) upfront UNLESS he is imminent danger of serious physical injury.

Riches long ago accrued his "3 strikes" and cannot proceed without paying the filing fee (unless he meets the imminent danger test which - to date - he has not). He's unable to pay the $350 up front because he is incarcerated and flat broke.

The federal courts SCREEN prisoner lawsuits - including those by Mr. Riches - BEFORE defendants are served with process.

Mr. Riches is well-known to the federal judiciary and screening (and dismissing) his lawsuits based on "3 strikes" takes all of about 5 minutes.

The First Amendment secures to Mr. Riches the right to mail his complaints to the federal courts -decide for yourself whether the First Amendment is "leftist" or not. That being said, the federal courts are empowered by Congress to summarily dismiss these actions (without much trouble) pursuant to the "3 strikes" provisions before ANY defendant is served with the suit.

Posted by: The Clerk | Sep 17, 2010 10:44:22 AM

It might also be worth pointing out (as is already obvious from the nature of Riches' pleadings) that FMC Lexington provides mental health care and treatment to federal prisoners.

Posted by: Sumter L. Camp | Sep 17, 2010 11:13:52 AM

Jason --

"I think the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act was passed during those horrible years when that leftist commentator President Bill Clinton was in office."

Yes, it was passed by a Republican Congress, which forced moderation on Clinton, making it possible for him to win in '96.

BTW, are you a fan of the PLRA? I mean, you wouldn't be one of those guys who was trashing it at the time and now cites it as a needed remedy -- would you?

The Clerk --

"There is, in fact, a limit on the number of federal suits that can brought by prisoners. 28 U.S.C. Section 1915(g) provides that after dismissal of the third complaint, Mr. Riches was no longer able to proceed without paying the full filing fee ($350) upfront UNLESS he is imminent danger of serious physical injury."

But the article says that "A federal inmate who has filed more than 3,800 lawsuits and targeted the famous, the infamous and even the long-dead is now being sued by federal officials who want him to knock it off." What evidence do you have impeaching the article's statement that this guy has, in fact, filed more than 3800 suits?

"Riches long ago accrued his '3 strikes' and cannot proceed without paying the filing fee (unless he meets the imminent danger test which - to date - he has not). He's unable to pay the $350 up front because he is incarcerated and flat broke."

Wouldn't you say that that discriminates against the poor? I mean, why should Michael Millken be able to file an infinite number of suits while Jonathan Riches is limited to three?

Not only is the limit discriminatory, it's irrational. The possible merit of any given suit has nothing to do with the plaintiff's ability to pay the filing fee.

"The First Amendment secures to Mr. Riches the right to mail his complaints to the federal courts."

Baloney. First Amendment rights are not absolute, as you couldn't help knowing. Judges all the time impose gag orders in aid of the administration of justice. Courts also all the time issue restraining orders on the "speech" and expression rights of people who harrass ex-lovers, celebrities and others with repeated mailings, phone calls, tracking and other plainly First Amendment activities.

What Mr. Riches is doing is harrassment, and you couldn't help knowing that either. It has absolutely nothing to do with law or his "rights" as a normal person would understand them to be. Barring him from further such "lawsuits" is scarcely an improper restriction of his First Amendment rights.

And I repeat the point you elide: Not putting a cap on this nonsense abets Mr. Riches in the belief that he can spend his days focusing on the supposed wrongs of others, a focus that makes rehabilitation for him difficult or impossible.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 17, 2010 12:06:13 PM

"Yes, it was passed by a Republican Congress, which forced moderation on Clinton, making it possible for him to win in '96."

Ahh Bill, you're as predictable as the leftist commentators of which you complain.

Posted by: Jason | Sep 17, 2010 2:15:58 PM

Lewis v Casey, Jones v. Avery.

Posted by: = | Sep 17, 2010 2:24:08 PM

My bad, Johnson v. Avery. Ex parte Hull.

Posted by: = | Sep 17, 2010 2:26:27 PM

Jason --

Thanks for the observations about my putative predictability. In a way, you're correct. I am predictably in favor of criminals taking responsibility and against the sorry, and often laughable, excuses made for them.

Here are the questions you by-passed: "[A]re you a fan of the PLRA? I mean, you wouldn't be one of those guys who was trashing it at the time and now cites it as a needed remedy -- would you?"

I wouldn't want to think of you as predictably evasive, so your answer is.............what?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 17, 2010 3:47:50 PM

"I wouldn't want to think of you as predictably evasive, so your answer is.............what?
Imagine....Bill Otis, the master of distraction, calling someone out for being evasive. Reminds me of the old saw about pots and kettles LOL

Posted by: Just Sayin' | Sep 17, 2010 5:08:06 PM

For true serial abusers of the system, of which Riches is a model, no "defendant" should be put to the expense and burden of having to respond -- or even the burden of having to consult counsel about whether to respond -- unless specifically ordered to do so by a court.

Some federal district judge (if necessary, a judge of each district court in which he files complaints) should enter a Jonathan Lee Riches-case management order providing that (1) everything Riches files will be consolidated and filed under one docket number; (2) a judge of the court will periodically review Riches' filings to determine whether any of his filings appears to assert any colorably meritorious claim against any defendant; (3) no defendant need respond to anything Riches files unless specifically ordered to do so by the Court, even if they are served by Riches with what purports to be legal process; (4) the clerk must refer any request by Riches for entry of default or default judgment to the Court, which will deny it summarily; (5) Riches must attach a copy of the case management order to anything he files in any federal court; (6) any attempt by Riches to circumvent the order will be referred for prosecution as a criminal contempt of court (which presumably would be some deterrent if he isn't already serving a lifetime prison sentence).

Posted by: guest | Sep 17, 2010 5:32:43 PM

Just Sayin' --

How ungenerous of you to call Jason a "kettle" for the minor crime of evading my question about where he stands on the PLRA -- the law he now invokes, but (thus far) refuses to tell us if he actually supports.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 17, 2010 5:45:33 PM

The first amendment does not grant unfettered access rights to the courts. That's correct. There can be reasonable limitations on the right of access. So you all can debate reasonable.

I've dealt with the issue, and while it might not appear to take a long time to "dispose" of these obvious frivolous filings, that's deceptive. Each has to be read to determine if there is a threat of serious injury. Each has to be scanned and filed on ECF. An order denying it must be filed. Sure, that might take only 15 minutes, if they are short, but when he's filing four a day, that's an hour of someone's time every day.

A man named Clovis Carl Green did the same thing through the 80s and 90s.

Green created his own church, the tenants of which permitted men to wear beards and grow hair longer than is presently allowed in prison, have regular conjugal visits, hold Saturday services, hold banquets on religious holidays, and distribute the Church newspaper Truth to fellow inmates. Green v. White, 605 F.2d 376, 377 (8th Cir. 1979). Another tenant was that Green was the only one who may speak for the Church in litigation. No member may file any litigation without Green's consent. Green v. Camper, 477 F.Supp. 758, 770 n.6 (W.D.Mo. 1976).

“Clovis Carl Green is in all likelihood the most prolific prisoner litigant in recorded history. In the last decade Green has filed between 600 and 700 complaints in federal and state courts.” In re Green, 669 F.2d 779, 781 (D.D.C. 1981) (also stating that “Green's pattern of repetitive, frivolous and malicious filings constitutes a flagrant and serious abuse of the judicial process and must come to a stop”).

The Supreme Court denied IFP status to Green in a case, for the first time ever. "'He was a regular friend of every clerk,' said Elliot Gerson, a Supreme Court clerk several years back, adding that 'we saw more of him than we did of Covington & Burling,' the biggest law firm in Washington." Linda Greenhouse, Paper Siege by Prisoner Provokes Ire, New York Times, April 7, 1983, at B-10.

Some of his lawsuits were patently funny. Example: Green sued the Missouri DOC and demanded that they make him a paid staff chaplain and their failure was a violation of his church and his first amendment rights.

He was ultimately proscribed by the District of Missouri from filing lawsuits for other people. He broke that rule twice and was tried for criminal contempt of court and sentenced to consecutive sentences. He's still serving time on subsequent charges, I think rape in colorado.

Restrictions are totally appropriate in these cases.

Posted by: Bill B. | Sep 17, 2010 5:55:50 PM

Someone point to a fundamental difference between these claims and those filed by licensed lawyers. There is none. Foreseeability is at the core of duty. Predicting and changing the future is a supernatural power attributed to God by the Medieveal church. God can predict the future and change it, the church believed, not man. The typical lawsuit is as silly, insane, unconstitutional, but far more damaging that those of this prisoner. There should be a limit placed on the licensed lawyer who has lost 3 lawsuits. Any subsequent ones should be screened by another lawyer, and thrown in the trash if it contains any supernatural idea.

Even the meritorious law suit 1) does not deter the defendant, passing along all costs to the public; 2) deters the entire industry if costs are not passed along, send chinks of our economy abroad; 3) no evidence exists to show enhanced safety, with all safety enhancements coming from technology, and technology is deterred by litigation. On policy grounds alone, the tort business should be stopped by judges and legislatures.

Torts does substitute for violence. However, it does so really badly, with lawyer sucking up most money for victims. Violent self-help may be a better alternative to torts. Imagine yourself the President of BP. Which motivates you better to enhance safety, a meeting with your lawyers and insurance officials, or a meeting with bat wielding shrimp boat owners?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 17, 2010 6:58:16 PM

Bill B. --

That was one fantastic post you wrote. I remembered the case, but couldn't remember the name. One of the opinions that finally brought the curtain down of Green went on for page after page just listing the cases he had filed. I remembered thinking to myself at the time that a system that let Green go on for this long was a system that did not take itself seriously.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 17, 2010 11:10:33 PM

Thanks. Post-conviction work is one of my specialty areas. I talk about Green once a year when we get summer law interns. And you are correct -- there's actually three cases with lists like that.

I also have to disagree that the AEDPA killed habeas procedure. The law codified many of the procedural rules that were already in practice in every circuit at the time it was passed. The only true new restriction was the one-year time limit. If one of the goals of our crim justice system is uniformity, how can codifying the procedures be a mistake?

Posted by: Bill B. | Sep 18, 2010 12:27:30 AM

Doug B.: "The only true new restriction was the one-year time limit."

But isn't that the predominant objection to it? Doesn't the government get off on a technicality daily because of it? An interesting study would be the ratio of the government getting off on technicalities in comparison to criminals getting off on technicalities. Although we hear of criminals getting off on technicalities, it is a safe bet that the government wins by a ratio of more than 10 to 1 by getting off on a technicality and the ratio is probably much higher. That is probably true even if we exclude filings without reasonable merit.

Posted by: George | Sep 18, 2010 11:35:37 AM

In the past 5 years, as a paralegal, I've personally responded to over 200 section 2255 motions. Based on that experience, I'm gonna disagree that the Government gets off on that technicality on a daily basis and wins 10-to-1 based on technicalities. Less than 5 percent are untimely. The prisoners talk to each other and know about the one-year limit. Might be different in different districts, but I have no evidence to believe that's the case.

If you can cite statistics that support your position that contradict my experience, I'll happily reconsider my position.

Posted by: Bill B. | Sep 18, 2010 3:23:08 PM

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