Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Frivolous use of the term “frivolous lawsuits”

According to an online legal dictionary, a frivolous lawsuit is defined as:

…one without any legal merit. In some cases, such an action might be brought in bad faith for the purpose of harassing the defendant. In such a case, the individual bringing the frivolous suit might be liable for damages for Malicious Prosecution. defines a frivolous claim as:

… lawsuit or motion in a lawsuit motivated by an intent merely to harass, delay or embarrass the opposition. In order to be found frivolous, the claim must have no arguable basis in law or fact.

I’m no legal scholar, but my attorney friends tell me that frivolous lawsuits are serious business. Judges don’t take kindly to people wasting courtroom resources, time and money on lawsuits that have no merit. In fact, people who bring frivolous lawsuits can be heavily sanctioned under state and federal laws.

At the Legislature, supporters of weakening the state’s environmental laws have been throwing the term “frivolous lawsuit” around like candy in a homecoming parade as they push a bevvy of bills aimed at increasing development of Montana’s extractive industries.

According to their reasoning, Montana’s economy is struggling and unemployment rates are high not because of Wall Street’s high-risk mortgage schemes that sparked the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, but because of “frivolous lawsuits” brought by “environmental extremists.”

Take, for example, today’s GOP blast from party director Bowen Greenwood about “jobs bills.” According to Greenwood, House Bill 533 by Tom Berry, R-Roundup, would  (emphasis mine):

…create jobs in Montana by allowing a coal lease to be extended if the project has to content (sic) with an environmental lawsuit. Our natural resource industries are hampered by frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.

Or this blog post on the GOP’s “Rotunda Report” by Jon Bennion,  government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce:

In response to the overwhelming support for increased responsible resource development, the Senate has acted on two bills that will create jobs and add more revenue in the future for schools. SB 233 (Keane – Butte) and SB 317 (Vincent – Libby) attempt to remove the ability of obstructionist environmentalists from filing frivolous lawsuits to block responsible development.

The thing is, Montana law already forbids frivolous lawsuits. So does federal law.

My point is that just because somebody doesn’t a like the outcome of lawsuit doesn’t make it “frivolous” in the legal sense of the word. 

Accusing “environmental obstructionists” of filing “frivolous lawsuits,”  is essentially accusing them of breaking the law.

That’s not to say frivolous lawsuits don’t happen in Montana. In 2002 a Hot Springs man named Jack Ass (that’s not a joke), sued Viacom, MTV’s parent company, for defamation of character. Don’t believe me? Check it out. Seems Mr. Ass was displeased with the hit MTV show featuring Johnny Knoxville and the gang performing bone-splintering stunts and gross-out gags.

I would be curious to see a list of environmentalists’ lawsuits that judges found to be frivolous. My guess is it’s a pretty short list.

If there are any attorneys out there I’d welcome your thoughts on this subject in the comments section.

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