July 31, 2008 -- Most people do whatever they can to avoid a lawsuit, but there are people who go out of their way to appear before a judge -- over and over and over again.
People who file numerous lawsuits, known as serial litigants, are often motivated by the hopes of winning lots of money or obtaining justice. And according to forensic psychiatrists, in some cases they're also motivated by deep psychological reasons -- paranoia, the need for attention or a belief that only in court will their perceived suffering be validated.
It's become widespread enough that some states are removing serial litigants from the legal system altogether, banning them from filing future suits.
"Serial litigants are ubiquitous," said Dr. Mark Levy, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. "Everybody has a right to his day in court, but some people are there for psychological rather than judicial reasons."
Frequent plaintiffs can in some cases sue hundreds of companies and individuals or spend years in court, suing increasing numbers of people related to one or many perceived injustices, Levy said.
"They are usually looking to have what they regard as suffering witnessed on the stage of the court. It is a theatrical enactment," he said. "The remedy in a civil case is typically money, but for these individuals it isn't about the money or justice. It is about having their suffering validated. They want acknowledgment of what they perceive as lifelong suffering."
California Bars the 'Vexatious'
In a handful of states, enforced most stringently in California, judges have the power to brand frequent plaintiffs "vexatious litigants" and bar them from filing future complaints. As a result of filing too often, relitigating cases that have already been decided, filing annoying motions or a perception that courts are being used to extort money, some 970 names have been added to California's list of vexatious litigants since 1991, according to the California Administrative Office of the Courts.
One of those 970 names belongs to Jarek Molski, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound man who filed more than 400 cases in two years under the Americans with Disabilities Act against restaurants, hotels and wineries for not complying with state and federal regulations.
In 2004, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said Molski was a vexatious litigant who was "misusing a noble law" and engaged in a "scheme of systematic extortion."
In addition to getting businesses to comply with the law, Molski was also asking for damages in his suits, around $4,000 a case, according to his then attorney Thomas Frankovich.
But if Molski was the bane of California businesses and courts, many in the disabled community saw him as a hero who went after businesses that were not complying with the law.
Frankovich, who filed more than 200 of Molski's cases, said they all had merit.
"The majority of people didn't like the fact that he filed all these lawsuits," the lawyer said. "Our position has always been that these cases have merit. If they have merit, but you don't like that someone is filing them, then change the law."
Frankovich said that in the majority of the 400 cases that went to trial, business owners made the appropriate adjustments to comply with the law, like fixing the height of toilets or grab-bars in disabled-use bathrooms.
"Yes, Molski got the money, but he also got the changes made. The legislature made these violations a penalty by statute and a single judge shouldn't be able to say someone is overusing the law. It was a single activist judge who just looked at the number of suits, not their merit, and sanctioned Molski," he said.
Plaintiffs aren't the only ones accused of too much litigation.
Though he is not on the vexatious litigants list, a judge suspended Frankovich from filing lawsuits in 2006, and he now claims that "activist judges are trying to get me disbarred."
Clients 'Don't Want Resolution'
Little research has been done into the psychology of serial litigants, but an Australian study printed in Behavioral Sciences and the Law found that many vexatious litigants displayed symptoms consistent with "querulous paranoia."
"The central feature clinically is their complete quest for a personal vision of justice to which all else is subjected," wrote forensic psychologists Paul E. Mullen and Grant Lester.
"Unlike many deluded patients… the querulous provide a detailed and apparently logical account of the emergence of their grievances and the progress of their quest for justice," they wrote.
According to Levy and the Australian researchers, serial litigants often fit a profile of behavior.
"There is a profile often partially or fully met by these individuals. They usually have gone through several attorneys. One lawyer will take a serial litigant on as a client and then realize he is not dealing with a usual client," Levy said.
"The vast majority of civil cases end in a settlement, but these clients don't want resolution. Often they end up representing themselves, what the law calls pro se, or they end up with an attorney who identifies with them. Most attorneys keep perspective when it comes to their clients, but there are some who get caught up in making their client into a cause celebre, willing to take it as far as possible," he said.
Frequent Filings Take a Toll
Meryl Lanson of West Palm Beach, Fla., has been embroiled in lawsuits for the past 15 years.
In 1993, Lanson and her husband Norman learned that an employee and close friend had embezzled $3 million from their 52-year-old family business, a line of men's clothing stores in Florida.
"He went to jail, and we sued our accounting firm for malpractice," she said.
That suit led to another, which led to another. Representing herself, she has sued her attorneys for malpractice and as of last week filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen for violating her right to self-representation in a 1999 case.
She has filed complaints with the Florida Bar and written letters to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Charlie Crist.
"We lost everything," she told ABC News.com. "How can I just walk away? I can't just get on with my life because this is my life."
Fifteen years of legal wrangling, she says, has taken a psychic toll. Lanson believes she suffers from a version of post-traumatic stress disorder unofficially known as "legal abuse syndrome."
"I'm afraid to answer the phone because I'm worried it's an attorney. I'm afraid to look at the mail. There was a point where I'd collect the mail in a shopping bag without looking at it and wait 10 days before going through it. I'm afraid every time the fax machine rings because I anticipate negative news. Every time I go into court my heart starts to pound," she said.
"The suffering got so bad that I toyed with the idea of killing myself," she said.
Levy, who has not diagnosed or met personally with Lanson or Molski, said "most people don't go and sue their lawyer and the judge. It is an abnormal response to a situation. Just because someone wants to sue doesn't mean they weren't wronged, but it's how they respond in that situation that is telling."
"These cases have to do with people feeling that they have been wronged," he said. "The tragedy is that they will never feel vindicated. There will never be closure. There will never be satisfaction."