Bills to Curb Frivolous Suits Introduced in Congress

With the Republicans in control of the House, many were wondering about the prospects for tort reform at the federal level.  Indeed, President Barack Obama observed in his State of the Union address on January 25, 2011, “I am willing to look at . . . ideas to bring down costs including reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.” 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) earlier this month introduced legislation to reduce frivolous lawsuits. Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) then introduced a companion bill in the Senate (S.533).

The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (LARA), H.R. 966, would impose mandatory sanctions for plaintiff lawyers who file merit-less suits in federal court. 

Chairman Smith argued that lawsuit abuse has become too common in American society partly because the lawyers who bring these cases have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Plaintiffs' lawyers can file frivolous suits, no matter how absurd the claims, without any penalty. Meanwhile defendants are faced with the choice of years of litigation, high court costs and attorneys' fees or a settlement. Our legal system encourages frivolous lawsuits while defendants are left paying the price even when they are innocent. Many of these cases have cost innocent people and business owners their reputations and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ranking Member Grassley noted that without the serious threat of punishment for filing frivolous lawsuits, innocent individuals and companies will continue to face the harsh economic reality that simply paying off frivolous claimants through monetary settlements is often cheaper than litigating the case. "This perverse dynamic not only results in legalized extortion, it leads to businesses spending money to defend against baseless lawsuits rather than to create new jobs."

The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act would take three steps to help thwart frivolous lawsuits.

* Reinstates the requirement that if there is a violation of Rule 11, there will be sanctions.

* Requires that judges impose monetary sanctions against lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits.

* Reverses the 1993 amendments to Rule 11 that allow parties and their attorneys to avoid sanctions for making frivolous claims by withdrawing them within 21 days after a motion for sanctions has been served.

The House Judiciary Committee has already held a hearing on the House version, at which witnesses included Elizabeth A. Milito of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center, Professor Lonny Hoffman of the University of Houston Law Center, and Victor E. Schwartz, well known tort reform advocate.


 

Sanctions Against Plaintiffs in HRT Litigation

The judge in charge of multidistrict litigation involving Wyeth Pharmaceuticals' hormone replacement pill, Prempro, has decided to sanction a law firm representing hundreds of plaintiffs, for its failure to timely produce completed client fact sheets. In re: Prempro Products et al., No. 4:03-cv-01507 (E.D. Ark.). 

Judge Wilson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas recently granted Wyeth's motion for sanctions against a Texas-based firm, although he declined to dismiss the plaintiffs.

Readers of MassTortDefense know the role plaintiff fact sheets (PFT) play in mass tort litigation, replacing some aspects of basic fact discovery; allowing defendants to gather information for early case assessment; beginning the process that winnows the number of cases that will be subjected to fuller case-specific fact discovery and expert discovery; and eventually informing the pool of cases available for initial trials if the case management process includes bellwether trials. 

The information requested on the PFT is often a negotiated topic, but typically includes information that any plaintiff's attorney who has done a good faith, Rule 11 assessment of the claim should have, or could readily access. The Manual for Complex Litigation notes that in lieu of interrogatories, questionnaires directed to individual plaintiffs in standard, agreed-on forms were used successfully in the breast implant and diet drug litigation.  It also includes sample case management orders regarding, inter alia, plaintiff fact sheets. (For other examples of plaintiff fact sheets, see In re Baycol Products Litigation, MDL 1431, Pretrial Order No. 10 (D. Minn. Mar. 18, 2002) and In re Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1407, Case Management Order No. 6 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 21, 2002)).

Wyeth showed the court that the plaintiff firm missed several court deadlines to serve completed fact sheets for each of its clients. Wyeth first argued in 2008 that plaintiffs represented by the firm had repeatedly submitted incomplete fact sheets in which they provided merely a “will supplement” answer to several questions. Judge Wilson agreed and issued an order on Dec. 17, 2008,
directing the firm to produce completed fact sheets by Feb. 2, 2009.  In February, defendant again complained to the court that hundreds of fact sheets had not been served by the deadline and that many of those that had been produced remained incomplete, with plaintiffs replacing “will supplement” with the vague language that plaintiffs do "not recall and do not have reasonable access to the information that would be responsive to this question without undue burden or cost.”
Plaintiffs were then given until April 13 to resubmit the fact sheets in accordance with the order, and the responses led Wyeth to renew its bid for sanctions including dismissal.

The judge directed the firm to pay $5,000 to Wyeth to partially compensate it for the time and effort involved in seeking adequate fact sheets.  The firm must also assign an associate or paralegal to immediately contact all plaintiffs identified by Wyeth as still having insufficient fact sheets and to have the documents filled out by August 5th.

The court warned that it was likely that additional sanctions — and perhaps considerably more severe sanctions — will be imposed if substantial effort is required to review the adequacy of fact sheets filed by Aug. 5, 2009. 

The court indicated it had seriously considered dismissing all the affected cases without prejudice, and with the proviso that if a case was refiled it must have a reasonably accurate fact sheet attached and that sanctions against counsel would likely be imposed if additional fact sheets were attached with non-answers.  Only the administrative burden of dealing with amended complaint filings prevented this.