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James Chaffee doesn’t look like your stereotypical pro per.With his dark, subtly pinstriped suit, neatly trimmed hair and spectacles that dance from hand to hand as he talks, he could easily pass for an attorney. He speaks articulately, as you might expect from someone educated at Reed College, who once lived in France and who considers himself a literary, sophisticated kind of guy. He references state laws easily, off the top of his head. He’s had some practice by now. For about three decades he has made it a mission to keep the people who oversee San Francisco’s libraries in line. He has filed about 20 lawsuits toward that end, with only one outright win. In the eyes of the San Francisco city attorney’s office, Chaffee’s suits have been nothing more than a waste of time and money. Turning the tables, the office has taken the unusual step of asking the San Francisco Superior Court to label Chaffee a vexatious litigant � even though he doesn’t have any complaints currently pending. The city attorney’s office has only rarely tried to brand a litigant as “vexatious” � a spokesman said the last time was probably several years ago, before Dennis Herrera took office in 2002. And, lawyers outside the case said, motions like this are typically made by defendants trying to repel a pending suit, not as a plaintiff taking the initiative to file a complaint. Discussing the case at a Hayes Valley coffee shop last week, the 59-year-old Chaffeesaid the city’s complaint against him came as a shock. He also seems genuinely concerned about the consequences of being labeled a vexatious litigant � not just because of the taint of the name, but also because of the leverage he feels he would lose as a government watchdog. “If you don’t have at least the threat of suing [the city], they’re going to squash you like a bug,” said Chaffee. Even if his suits over public access at meetings or accounting for public funds haven’t been winners in court, he maintains that they’ve nudged the local library commission toward some reforms, such as changing the schedule for public comment at meetings. They also serve as a deterrent for future violations, he added. Matt Dorsey, the spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said that in filing the complaint, his office is fulfilling the library commission’s request as well as guarding tax dollars. He estimated the city has spent about $500,000 defending itself against Chaffee since just 1989. “I do respect the extent to which he’s involved in this city. He obviously cares about it,” said Dorsey, who said Chaffee has always struck him as friendly and engaging. “But it does add up.” Chaffee might never have gotten here if he hadn’t seen a group of kids get kicked out of a local San Francisco branch back in the 70′s. Looking for someone to complain to about the incident, he sought out the library commission, “and found out how much resistance they had to public input,” he said. He filed his first suit in 1978, he added. Chaffee has since come to view the library as a dramatic example of public institutions where philanthropists and corporations have taken on bigger roles � in his opinion, to the detriment of the public. But the city said he’s been “on a courtroom crusade,” according to court documents, because he filed at least 19 suits against the library commission since July 1989. Nine of them have come in the last seven years, enough to more than qualify him as a vexatious litigant under state law, Deputy City Attorney Sherri Sokeland Kaiser wrote in one brief. “It is possible to change the world by losing,” Chaffee countered in an e-mail to The Recorder. Chaffee obtained a writ of mandate in one case. Another of his suits survived summary judgment to reach a court trial, he notes, and the First District Court of Appeal has published three opinions in his cases. “If you’re going to trial and getting published opinions, you’re not wasting the court’s time,” he said. He also maintains the city’s current effort to label him vexatious is “unauthorized” by statute and case law, because the city attorney has brought it with no current lawsuit pending. His lawyer for the matter declined to comment this week. Chaffee points to two sections of California’s statute on vexatious litigants, California Code of Civil Procedure �391.1 and �391.3, which specifically refer to a defendant taking some action against a plaintiff who is allegedly a vexatious litigant. But, in this case, he’s the defendant. “It stands the whole thing on its head to say a defendant is a vexatious litigant,” he noted. The city maintains it’s on solid ground, citing a Fourth District opinion, Bravo v. Ismaj, 99 Cal.App.4th 211, in a case where a man had sued his dentist and lost, then become the target of a defense motion to have him declared a vexatious litigant. At this point, it’s not clear if either side will get to make those arguments in court. Herrera’s office sent Chaffee’s attorney a letter late last week offering to dismiss its complaint, but not without strings attached. If Chaffee were to file “another baseless lawsuit,” it said, the city would renew its motion � and might bring to the court’s attention the lawyer’s “representation that Mr. Chaffee has no plans to file another lawsuit against the city.” But Chaffee said the letter “disturbed” him because it referred to a representation his attorney never made. “He was saying there’s no reason for any hurry [to label Chaffee vexatious] because I don’t have any plans to file any suit soon. And they turned that into a representation that I don’t have any intention to sue,” he said. “Of course � as soon as they break the law again, I’m going to sue again.”

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