Thirty-nine percent of the 491 cases filed so far this month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia have been filed by one man: Jonathan Lee Riches.
Among the defendants to his 192 suits are former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda; the firms Pepper Hamilton and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Hooters of America; Norwegian Cruise Lines Inc.; and investment banker Bruce Wasserstein. Riches' celebrity targets include actors Anne Heche, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; musicians Cyndi Lauper and Eddie Van Halen; and Braves pitcher Tom Glavine.
Riches has alleged that Eliot Spitzer "used the fines [from corporate convictions] to pay for prostitutes," that the MacArthur Foundation froze Riches' inmate account and funneled the money to Spitzer; and that Pepper Hamilton took a $1 million retainer from him and other inmates, but used the money to gamble on the New York Giants.
Riches in 2003 pleaded guilty in federal court in Houston to wire fraud and conspiracy counts. His plea, the court's judgment and many other documents in the related suits -- which involved seven other co-defendants -- are sealed. However, an exhibit Riches filed along with one of his suits includes a typewritten page entitled "Related Case Information," which is very different in structure and tone from his usual handwritten pro se filings and may be a page from a court document or other official report.
It indicates that Riches, working with another man and a juvenile, engaged in identity theft related to stolen credit card information. He is serving a 10-year, five-month sentence slated to end in 2012.
Since entering the federal prison system, Riches has earned his own entry on the Web site for Wikipedia, which credits him with filing more than 1,000 suits across the country. Actually the real number of filings is even higher -- about 1,500, according to a search of the federal court system's US Pacer/US Party Case Index Web site.
"He is our most prolific filer," said James N. Hatten, the clerk of court for the Northern District. According to Hatten, Riches' suits started showing up on the docket in bulk in December. So far, he said, Riches has filed about 300 suits in the Northern District.
There's no indication that Riches, who, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site is 31, is serving the people and entities he's suing. Nor is he paying the court's $350 filing fee, said Hatten, who added that Riches also has not filed in forma pauperis to ask the court to waive its fee because he is indigent.
This means that the court has lost out on approximately $105,000 in upfront filing revenue. Also, Hatten offers what he terms a conservative estimate that it takes about an hour of administrative, law clerk and judge time to process each complaint -- meaning that so far, the district has spent roughly 300 hours on Riches' filings.
Some of Riches' prior complaints have been dismissed, including a $662 trillion suit filed in the Northern District last summer against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. The suit alleged that Vick was attempting to "kidnap" Riches' mind and to force him to lose weight, and demanded that the $662 trillion be delivered -- in "British gold" shipped via truck -- to the front gates of the prison where Riches is incarcerated.
Noting that a trio of other Riches' suits -- in federal courts in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida -- had been dismissed as frivolous, Senior U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr. dismissed the suit against Vick in August. He cited 28 U.S.C. §1915(g), the "Three Strikes Rule," which says a prisoner is prohibited from bringing federal civil actions in forma pauperis if, while incarcerated, he has had three other suits dismissed on the grounds of frivolity, malice or failure to state a claim.
There is, however, an exception. The prisoner may file, the statute says, if he's in imminent danger of physical injury.
"[T]his Court finds that none of Plaintiff's farcical assertions in the complaint, including his claim that Michael Vick threw snowballs at his car, qualify as a claim of imminent danger of serious physical injury," Hunt writes in Riches v. Vick, No. 07-13940-J.
Riches' appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was dismissed in September for want of prosecution.
Riches has worn out his welcome in at least one federal court already: the Northern District of West Virginia. After Riches filed 87 complaints in January -- one of them against pseudonymous children's book author Lemony Snicket -- a federal judge there issued a pre-filing injunction against him, requiring that the clerk refuse any new Riches complaints until they've passed muster with a federal magistrate judge.
Something like that may happen in Georgia, too.
Hatten said that while the system is built to err on the side of access to the courts, if filings like these become burdensome, eventually the Northern District will put a screening process in place where a judge reviews Riches' complaints before they enter the administrative filing process to see if they're frivolous, abusive of the system and should be filed at all.
"But that's always sort of a last resort," Hatten said.