In the future, it will be harder for some pro se litigants to pursue their legal claims.
In the just-completed General Assembly session, lawmakers approved a measure aimed at low-income, self-represented parties who do not have to pay court filing fees. There is mounting anecdotal evidence that a handful of non-lawyers were taking advantage of the fee waivers to file dozens of lawsuits, many of them ultimately judged to be frivolous.
The original proposal sought to force low-income people to perform community service hours if they could not afford to pay the $300 filing fee. But the community service requirement was left on the cutting room floor.
Instead, judges will now have more discretion to deny an indigent person’s request for a fee waiver. Specifically, judges will consider if the applicant has an extended pattern of filing claims on similar matters and whether other lawsuits filed by the applicant have been found to be frivolous. Also, judges will weigh whether granting the fee waiver would be an "egregious misuse of the Judicial Branch resources."
The initial bill to change the fee waiver process was proposed by state Representative Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, and supported by the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. "The [goal] was to create some statutory authority to allow more judicial discretion," Bowles said of the measure, which was passed in the final hours of the legislative session. "There is really just a handful of cases that are really egregious. Hopefully, this will provide judges with some discretion, without denying access."
Among the serial litigators cited in a March article in the Law Tribune was Judith Fusari of New Britain, who at that point had received fee waivers for 136 lawsuits and 58 appeals. Fusari, for instance, sued a Hartford bar because she said her daughter’s two friends were served allegedly poisoned drinks. She sued a store that allegedly wouldn’t sell a friend a motorized scooter used by disabled people. Then there’s Cecelia Lebby, whose 80 lawsuits included a claims against the fan club for Brett Michaels, the lead singer of the rock band Poison. Lebby claimed her membership dues got her nothing more than a Christmas card.
State Representative Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, who is co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said most lawmakers agreed something should be done about the small number of people who were taking advantage of the fee waiver rule. At the same time, Fox said, there was little support for making people perform community service in exchange for having access to the courts.
"People had concerns about that, I had concerns as well," Fox said. "We didn’t want to deny anyone access to the courts because they don’t have the ability to pay. And we don’t want people to have to work to get into court. The bill was aimed more toward people who file multiple lawsuits that have been deemed frivolous."
A public hearing was held in which some vented about curbing the activities of "serial filers," while others spoke of the need to protect court access to all. Opposition to the bill was raised by legal aid leaders, constitutional advocates and some of the self-represented parties the bill targeted. Among them was Brooklyn Macellaio, a former East Hartford resident who has filed dozens of lawsuits under the fee waiver system. His lawsuits, he said, were not frivolous.
"The state can’t mandate that poor indigent parties participate in community service," he said recently. "No state in the country has approved such a law and the Supreme Court would certainly not allow that."
Representative Rosa Rebimbas, a Naugatuck attorney who is the ranking House Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, took a lead role in amending the bill that was passed, Fox said.
Wyatt Kopp, a former court clerk from Gales Ferry who first proposed the bill to Representative Bowles, was pleased the measure passed. At the same time however, he said, the community service requirement he proposed would have served as an important deterrent to serial filers.
"I think the legislature should have kept the community service requirement," Kopp said. "The present reform is actually harsher than what I proposed because it allows a judge to deny a fee waiver if certain criteria is met. The community service requirement would have put the burden on the litigant themselves" to decide whether a claim was really worth pursuing.•