Madison v. Groseth (CA1 6/5/12)

This will interest those involved in foreclosures but for our purposes is significant as a useful discussion of the nuts and bolts of handling a vexatious litigant.

Factually it is yet another story of a debtor who borrowed money to buy a home, couldn’t repay it, and then filed everything she could think of pro se to prevent foreclosure. When she eventually lost, the trial court declared her a “vexatious litigant” and ordered her not to file further lawsuits about the property without court permission.

The court tells us in a footnote that such things are normally done by unappealable administrative order but that since this order was in a judgment (dismissing Madison’s Complaint) it is “essentially” an award of injunctive relief, which is appealable. Sometimes court are very strict about jurisdiction; other times, it seems, “essentially” having it is good enough.

A court has inherent authority over vexatious litigants but this opinion adopts a Ninth Circuit case (DeLong 1990) establishing procedural requirements. The trial court has to give notice and an opportunity to be heard, make a record for review, make “substantive findings as to the frivolous or harassing nature of the litigant’s actions,” and tailor the order narrowly.

The third step was at issue here and the Court of Appeals decides that the trial court got it wrong. Although it apparently made findings about all the lawsuits she had filed, it didn’t specifically find that any or all were frivolous or harassing. “[A] vexatious litigant order must rest on more than a recitation of the number of previously filed lawsuits.” In fact, it impliedly found to the contrary, at least about this particular lawsuit, by denying the defendants’ Rule 11/12-341.01C motion for fees. The court affirms the dismissal of Madison’s lawsuit but reverses the “vexatious litigant” order judgment.

Sometimes we like to think we have some effect on opinion writing, more often we realize we probably don’t, and once in a while we get paranoid and think that courts throw in things we won’t like just to spite us. One or two of the nine footnotes here might possibly be missed if they weren’t there. If jurisdiction is important enough to mention then its one of the more important things in the opinion and shouldn’t be stuck in a footnote. But what, for example, can possibly be the need, after mentioning in passing that this pro se plaintiff sued, among other things, for “conversion” of her home, for a footnote saying (and citing a case) that conversion applies only to chattels? The court sees the problem and so throws in a justification: “to avoid future confusion.” But who will be or has been confused? As for the people in this case, its over – and if it weren’t, if the case were going back on remand, then the court wouldn’t dare mention it. Does the court really think that somebody is going to read this case in the future and decide that it changed the law of conversion? Or is the court going out of its way to augment Ms. Madison’s legal education (for the next time she files one of those non-vexatious lawsuits)? And if it thinks that mentioning this allegation that had nothing to do with anything before the court will confuse, why mention it?

(link to opinion)