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DANA B. TASCHNER

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Frivolous lawsuit

 
 

A lawsuit or legal argument is termed frivolous if it is filed in spite of the fact that both the plaintiff and his lawyer knew that it had no merit and it did not argue for a reasonable extension or reinterpretation of the law or no underlying justification in fact based upon the lawyer's due diligence investigation of the case before filing (i.e. the well known U.S. Federal Rule 11). Since it wastes the court's and the other people's time, resources and legal fees, it may result in sanctions being levied by the court upon the party or the lawyer who brings the action.

There is no standard definition of what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit, although "frivolous pleading" (a pleading that repeats a previous pleading) and "frivolous appeal" (an appeal that has no chance of succeeding) are defined terms. The determination that a filing is frivolous is therefore subjective. Judges typically use the term to give a strong warning to litigants to be more diligent in formulating their arguments. According to attorney Daniel Evans, calling an argument "frivolous" is "absolutely the worst thing the judge could say . . . . The judge is telling you that you are out of your mind."

The general public often refers to a lawsuit as "frivolous" when it results in damages that greatly exceed what one would expect from a brief summary of the case. Perhaps the best-known such lawsuit in the United States was the Stella Liebeck case, in which an elderly woman sued McDonald's for injuries from hot coffee. Awards for medical malpractice are also frequently derided as frivolous. This misuses the term, since it looks at the outcome of the case and not the legal merit of the arguments. In these cases a jury presented with the complete facts of the case decided that the plaintiff's claim was not frivolous.

Litigants who represent themselves (in forma pauperis and pro se) often make frivolous arguments due to their limited knowledge of the law and procedure. The particular tendency of prisoners to bring baseless lawsuits led Congress to pass and Bill Clinton to sign the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which strictly limits the ability of prisoners to bring actions.


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