United States: Some Cases Are Like A Bad Cold—They Keep On Coming Back

Boyd Richards Parker & Colonnelli, P.L. and Bryan J. Mazzola sought a temporary restraining order, dismissal of the matter, sanctions, and requested the Court to enforce its prior order requiring James Pettus to seek judicial leave prior to filing any further papers with the court.

Pettus, without counsel, initiated the action in late 2018, ostensibly seeking further relief upon prior actions which he initiated against the co-op board of his building. The pending action named the law firm which represents his co-op, their attorney Bryan Mazzola and the Honorable Laura Douglas, who ruled against Pettus in a prior related matter. Pettus’ complaint, according to the Court, " reads as a stream of consciousness wherein he accuses most of the staff of the Bronx Supreme Court of corruption, racial animus, bribery, fraud, and a litany of other violations most familiar to anyone who has studied intentional torts."

Pettus was the named plaintiff in 97 state lawsuits, as well as over 60 federal lawsuits.

The Court admonished that: "As a Pro Se litigant, Mr. Pettus has failed to understand that the United States legal system is an adversarial one. The mere filing of a lawsuit does not guarantee victory, as multiple judges over many, many years and various jurisdictions have attempted to explain to him. Mr. Pettus has chosen to ignore judicial admonitions, repeatedly defying court orders precluding him from filing further frivolous papers without leave of court. These decisions have been repeatedly upheld on appeal; so affirmed as recently as March of this year by the Appellate Division, First Department [.]"

In 2015 Justice Barone found Pettus to be a “vexatious litigant.” The ruling was upheld by the First Department and the Court of Appeals declined to hear a further appeal. Also in 2015, Justice Guzman concurrently dismissed three of Pettus’ actions on the merits and he was thereafter unsuccessful on appeal. These actions all named his co-op’s Board of Directors as defendants and concerned themselves with a 9% co-op fee increase.

Later in 2015, Justice Julia Rodriguez denied Pettus’ repeated attempts to obtain overbroad and extravagant discovery from his co-op board for cause pursuant to the Business Judgment Rule. She further reiterated prior court orders that Pettus cease and desist from delivering further letters, motions, or arguments directly to her courtroom or chambers.

Pettus subsequently initiated an Article 78 proceeding against the same defendants, again contesting a co-op fee increase of 9%. Justice Rodriguez again dismissed Pettus' petition, with prejudice. Pettus appealed and the First Department unanimously affirmed her decision.

The Court noted that " under our system of justice, Judges Barone, Rodriguez, and Guzman’s rulings are the law of the land." Pettus had filed multiple related lawsuits against various defendants, related and unrelated to his original suit. In Bronx County alone, the clerk’s office showed that Pettus brought at least 19 separate actions against judges, court staff, lawyers, his co-op board or their officers and the captain’s office of the Bronx County Court officers.  And Pettus sent vaguely threatening letters to judges following their decisions and to court staff in good standing with the State of New York. The Court found that :" Every subsequent filing by Mr. Pettus, without prior court approval, has been an exercise in Mr. Pettus thumbing his nose at the Court, which has been coolly tolerated until now."

The courts of New York are no strangers to vexatious litigation. Repeatedly, across multiple courts, in multiple departments, the results have remained the same. One Court noted that “public policy mandates free access to the courts … and, ordinarily, the doctrine of former adjudication will serve as an adequate remedy against repetitious suits.” It further observed that: “[n]onetheless, a litigious plaintiff pressing a frivolous claim can be extremely costly to the defendant and can waste an inordinate amount of court time, time that this court and the trial courts can ill afford to lose[.]"

On the subject of vexatious litigants, other courts have agreed. “Given plaintiff’s `continuous and vexatious litigation,’ an order enjoining him from further litigation against this defendant, to the extent indicated, is warranted.”...”While public policy mandates free access to the courts, when a litigant is abusing the judicial process by harassing individuals solely out of ill will or spite, equity may enjoin such vexatious litigation”[.] The Court continued that "when, as here, a litigant is abusing the judicial process by haranguing individuals solely out of ill will or spite, equity may enjoin such vexatious litigation[.]"

The Court was concerned that Pettus continued to use the limited resources of the Court System "to fruitlessly pursue duplicative and spurious claims, even claims which have already been decided adversely to Mr. Pettus. As noted, he is no stranger to litigation in Supreme Court, Bronx County, Civil Term. The Court should not have to expend resources on another action by Mr. Pettus that will be nothing more than a new variation on the same theme of defendants’ alleged misdeeds and misconduct, or ever more likely, a new lawsuit against this Court based purely on this decision being averse to Mr. Pettus’ desired result. The continued use of the New York State Unified Court System for the personal pursuit by Mr. Pettus of irrational complaints against defendants must cease. Our courts have an interest in preventing the waste of judicial resources by a party who knows that his or her lawsuit has no legitimate basis in law or fact and continues to attempt to relitigate resolved claims and issues".

Pettus’ status as a pro-se litigant did not inoculate him from the rules which govern the courts. Pro-se litigants who abuse judicial process have had their access to the courts limited many times in the past.

The Court admonished that: "The fact that one appears pro-se is not a license to abuse the process of the Court and to use it without restraint as a weapon of harassment and libelous bombardment. The injunction herein ordered is fully warranted to put an end to such activity … Commencement of action upon action based on the same facts dressed in different garb, after thrice being rejected on the merits and having been repeatedly warned that the claims were barred by res judicata, can only be explained as malicious conduct."

The Court dismissed the complaint as conclusory and speculative after finding that Pettus "forfeited his rights by abusing the judicial process through continued and repeated vexatious litigation." Accordingly, he was enjoined from filing any further lawsuits against defendants, or any member in good standing of the Court, without leave and permission from a judge. "The court’s resources cannot continue to be wasted in entertaining Mr. Pettus’ repeated, duplicative, and spurious claims. Further analysis of res judicata is unnecessary on these facts, except merely to say, in as plain terms as possible: Mr. Pettus, your legal arguments have failed, and it is time to move on. The courts are not, and cannot be, a playground wherein grievances are litigated and re-litigated ad infinitum."

In a subsequent proceeding, Pettus challenged the constitutionality and applicability of the governing provision of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, which was raised for the first time on appeal and unpreserved . Appellate Term enjoined Pettus from filing any further papers in that Court without prior permission to do so.

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