August 17, 2006
Sometimes you've got to learn to quit when you're behind. Today's cautionary tale comes to us courtesy of Ronald and Sara Siemientkowski, who purchased a home in North Ridgeville a few years back. Shortly thereafter, they discovered that a leach bed encroached on their property. Claiming it made their home uninhabitable, the Siemientkowskis filed a 92-page pro se complaint alleging 28 separate causes of action (conspiracy, infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and just about everything short of a violation of the Mann Act) against thirty-some defendants. They filed it first in Federal court, where the judge promptly kicked it out, and the 6th Circuit just as promptly affirmed. The Siemientkowskis then filed in Common Pleas court.
One of the defendants was a company who had issued a bond for the lawn grading. Their attorney repeatedly pointed out that this simple act did not make the company liable, under any conceivable theory, for the Siemientkowski's woes, but they refused to dismiss the company. The company eventually was granted summary judgment, and the trial court awarded them $30,000 in sanctions. Needless to say, the plaintiffs appealed, and the court affirmed the award.
The Siemientkowskis were undeterred: they turned around and made a claim against their homeowners policy for the $30,000 and, when it was turned down, they sued the insurance company, claiming that an award of sanctions was similar to a judgment for malicious prosecution, liable, or slander, for which the insurance company would've been on the hook. The trial court granted summary judgment on that claim as well, and last week our court of appeals again affirmed, taking a whole paragraph to dispense of the plaintiff's argument.
But the court didn't stop there: it decided that sanctions should be awarded against the Siemientkowskis for pursuing an appeal, and instructed defense counsel to file a statement of reasonable attorneys fees and costs.
Now, it's hard to muster much sympathy for the Siemientkowskis. Frankly, I'm of the view that anyone who files a 92-page complaint, lawyer or not, should be taken out back of the Justice Center and shot, as a warning to others. On the other hand, the defendants hadn't sought sanctions on the appeal. In fact, they hadn't even sought sanctions in the lower court. What's more, in the first appeal -- where the claim was arguably even more meritless, because the trial court had awarded sanctions -- the court of appeals found there were "reasonable grounds" for the appeal.
Still, that makes more sense than a decision handed down by the 10th District a few weeks ago. The plaintiff there had been chagrined about a custody decision, and so she decided to file a lawsuit against -- who else? -- the guardian ad litem, alleging malpractice, fraud, obstruction of justice, RICO violations, and "various unspecified crimes and other illegality." (This was another pro se plaintiff. Oh, you guessed.) You don't get any more bogus than that, and the trial court granted $6,000 in sanctions. The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court spent several pages explaining why this was probably the single stupidest lawsuit in Anglo-American law since the days of William of Orange, but then turned around and denied appellate sanctions. Why? Because the issue of the amount of sanctions awarded by the trial court was a reasonable ground for appeal.
If you think that through, though, it means that the appellate court could never award its own sanctions in an appeal from a lower court's award of sanctions, because the amount of the award would also be subject to reasonable question. A better approach would be to award fees on those aspects of the appeal which were clearly meritless, as the very same court did three years earlier.
At any rate, all this serves as an explanation why the phrase "pro se litigant" instills as much fear in the courtroom as "incoming!" does on the battlefield.