This is a guest Trial Call post by Leor Hafuta on John v. Superior Court, the recent California Supreme Court case addressing the vexatious litigant statute and its applicability in certain appeals. Leor is an incoming 3L at Loyola School of Law and a summer clerk at Henderson, Caverly, Pum & Charney, LLP.
A plaintiff declared a vexatious litigant cannot file a law suit in California without first seeking a court’s leave or obtaining legal counsel pursuant Cal. Civ. Proc. § 391.7 (“Statute”). The Statute, aimed at limiting misuse of the court system, allow courts to declare plaintiffs vexatious litigants if they have initiated five unsuccessful or unresolved lawsuits within the past seven years.
In John v. Superior Court, 63 Cal. 4th 91 (Cal. 2016), the California Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) confronted the issue of whether the vexatious litigant Statute applies to defendants appealing a judgment against them. In the underlying case, the Defendant appealed an unlawful detainer judgment and an award of attorney’s fees against her. The court said it would entertain her appeals if she furnished security because she was a vexatious litigant. After the court dismissed her appeals for failure to furnish security, she petitioned the Second District Court of Appeal (“Court of Appeal”) to have her underlying appeal heard on its merits.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the vexatious litigant filing requirements did not apply to the defendant because she did not initiate the litigation. The plaintiff then petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that a defendant who files an appeal is in the same position as a plaintiff filing new litigation. The Supreme Court disagreed with the plaintiff, holding that the Statute only applies to a plaintiff’s appeal, not the party who did not initiate the litigation.
Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision and disapproved prior case law, which stated that the filing requirements apply to all vexatious litigant appellants.
Ruling Otherwise Would be Equivalent to Saying Two Wrongs Make a Right: Overall, the case seems to place a necessary and logical limitation on the vexatious litigant Statute. The Statute provides an important mechanism for curbing an unrepresented plaintiff’s ability to file vexatious lawsuits (a wrong), especially when he or she is not subject to discipline from the state bar. However, if the Statute would apply when vexatious litigants appeal a case they did not initiate, the Supreme Court would essentially be punishing those vexatious litigants for their past actions rather than evaluating the appeal on its merits (also a wrong). Thus, the Supreme Court ruling was consistent with the intent of Statute to limit abuse of the courts.
A Vexatious Defendant on Appeal is in the Clear: If you ever find yourself filing suit against an unrepresented vexatious litigant, be aware that the Statute will not hinder that vexatious defendant from appealing a judgment in your favor. However, if the defendant frivolously appeals that judgement, you may be able to recover attorney’s fees under Cal. Civ. Proc. Section 907 or move for sanctions under Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.276.