‘Stalking by way of the courts’

November 24, 2018 GMT

Editor’s Note: Hearst Connecticut Media first reported on Charlotte’s case in 2017 in an article titled “The Legal Assault” — part of a five-part series on domestic violence. At her request, we continue to use the pseudonyms “Charlotte” and “Lucas” to protect her privacy.

As the minutes ticked by in the Stamford courtroom, Charlotte sat next to her lawyer, praying for a ruling that would transform the courts, so long a place of abuse, into a refuge.

Charlotte, a travel and marketing consultant, was seeking relief from a non-stop torrent of legal actions brought against her since 2014 by the father of her 4-year-old son. Her lawyer has argued, and two Connecticut family court judges have agreed, that this flood of litigation — most of it eventually denied or dismissed — has risen to the level of harassment.

While Charlotte’s case garnered a rare ruling Wednesday, her situation is not wholly unique, advocates say.

Thousands of individuals are subjected to vexatious litigation every year, prompting some states to respond with new legislation to limit the practice.

In domestic violence cases, vexatious litigation can become a new tool for abusers to retain power over their victims, said Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Some advocates have given it a name: “stalking by way of the courts.”

“The circumstance of abusers using the court system to continue to harass, stalk, threaten, intimidate emotionally, manipulate, cause emotional harm to their ex-partner is extremely common, and it is a challenge that we grapple with on a daily basis,” said Jarmoc.

Acknowledging the issue, Tennessee passed a law in May allowing a judge to stop a former romantic partner from filing frivolous motions against an ex. The CCADV is now considering lobbying for similar legislation in Connecticut in 2019.

Unceasing litigation

When their short dating relationship produced a child, Charlotte hoped for a harmonious co-parenting situation with the dapper interior designer Lucas.

But from 2014 to 2017, Lucas filed 56 motions against Charlotte in family court, three civil restraining order applications, one civil complaint, one probate court complaint and one appeal of a family court decision, in addition being sentenced to a family violence re-education program for disorderly conduct, court documents show.

In the past year, Lucas has only continued his aggressive litigation. In 2018, he filed six new restraining order applications against Charlotte and her father — all denied — and two fresh appeals.

All that litigation has cost Charlotte, a Greenwich resident, more than $515,000, she said. She lost her job due because she was in court so much, and it took her time away from parenting.

Exhausted to the point of numbness, she worries constantly about what the man who threatened to take their child away will do next. Even her dreams are invaded by a maelstrom of judges, filings and courtrooms, she said.

“It has taken over my life,” said Charlotte, testifying before a family court judge Wednesday.

Lucas denied Wednesday that he harassed Charlotte through the courts, or otherwise. He maintains his legal actions are not “frivolous.”

“I finally and categorically deny every allegation that has been made against me,” he said. “(She) simply doesn’t stop.”

States’ responses

Some states have started to address the use of litigation to intimidate or harass people, advocates say. Texas, California, Florida and Massachusetts have passed laws to address vexatious litigants, according to the CCADV.

California includes a lengthy definition of “a vexatious litigant” in its state statutes. Since 1991, it has published a monthly list of vexatious litigants in the state. Canada allows judges to hold some hearings in writing to reduce vexatious litigation.

The Tennessee law passed this spring allows a judge to hold a hearing to determine whether an ex-spouse, former romantic partner or family member has filed abusive civil lawsuits. The law empowers the judge to stop someone from filing additional abusive lawsuits for least four years but no more than six years.

Some advocates and legal observers have worried that the Tennessee law could be used against victims as well as abusers, however.

“I’m not sure it would always be clear to courts who is the vexatious litigant,” said Susan Schmeiser, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. “There could be mutual recrimination.”

Connecticut now

Connecticut laws give judges leeway to respond to vexatious litigation, but does not specifically outline a strong sanction for the behavior.

The Connecticut Practice Book, which contains court rules published by the state, forbids frivolous and vexatious litigation. State statute also permits the court to force a plaintiff who makes an untrue pleading to pay the defendant’s legal fees, but does not block their ability to file future motions.

“Generally the judges usually stick to the Practice Book and prior case law when they make their decisions,” said Anne Louise Blanchard, litigation and advocacy director for Connecticut Legal Services.

Judges may craft additional orders or sanctions to protect a victim, if they see fit. But they must allow everyone to defend their rights in court, while attempting to dismiss frivolous litigation.

“We’re always on kind of a tightrope to ensure due process,” said Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto, deputy chief court administrator for the Judicial Branch, in a 2017 interview with Hearst Connecticut Media.

Judges may be hampered in their ability to respond to vexatious litigants if the litigation is filed in multiple courts or if new motions are assigned to different judges. When presented with only one thorny action amid a forest of lawsuits, it can be difficult for a judge to see the whole picture of a litigant’s behavior.

Bozzuto advocated for “individual calendaring” to improve the Family Court system — one judge sitting through the entirety of a case from first motion to trial. Only the Norwich Judicial District now uses individual calendaring, said Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, communications program manager for the Connecticut Judicial Branch.

Judges should also be educated on their inherent ability to control the “orderly authority of justice,” said Schmeiser.

“Courts can always dismiss particular pleadings as frivolous, but I think they are reluctant to do so,” she said. “Judges are reluctant to cut off litigants and potentially infringe on their access to justice and their rights to be heard.”

New territory

On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge issued a second Strobel order, named for litigants in a precedent-setting family case, on Charlotte’s behalf, blocking Lucas from filing any new restraining orders in Family Court.

Alicia Chalameau, Charlotte’s attorney, called the ruling a “unicorn.”

“Strobel orders, by their nature, exist maybe in 1 percent of court cases,” she said. “You would be hard pressed today to find another Strobel order in a restraining order case.”

But Charlotte was frustrated, fearing Lucas may turn to other courts to continue the onslaught.

“I would like to see that the person who has caused me so much fear and distress and anxiety and loss of my time with my son, my personal time and my work time, I would like to see that person be sanctioned and be restrained from continuing to behave that way,” she said.

emunson@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson