THE cry comes from an overburdened judiciary and a frustrated public exasperated with court clog to throw out of the legal system frivolous or unmeritorious lawsuits. These would include claims that can't possibly be proved, those filed in bad faith, and others that have no factual basis. Courts, in recent years, have tried to isolate the silly or the far out. They have, on occasion, required plaintiffs who file claims that are little more than harassment to pay the legal costs of defendants. This, however, is rare.
Under the United States system, it is relatively easy to make a legal claim. And a vulnerable defendant may pile up tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyers' fees before a judge or jury decides the matter is frivolous and doesn't warrant action.
Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires courts to penalize lawyers and, in some instances, clients who act without reasonable, factual legal bases. Those who do not meet this standard may be ordered to pay their adversaries' legal fees and other defense costs. Other federal statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, allow winners in lawsuits - either plaintiffs or defendants - to recover lawyers' fees and other court expenses.
Some see Rule 11 as possibly stifling legitimate civil rights complaints. In fact, a University of Pennsylvania task force report says that plaintiffs in civil rights cases were sanctioned under this provision five times as often as their counterparts in noncivil-rights cases. This study was conducted in the Third US Circuit, a federal jurisdiction that includes Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The cases studied did not involve allegations of race, sex, or age bias. Civil rights advocates say, however, that the standards are not clear and that varying judicial circuits apply the rule differently.
Although Rule 11 was not invoked in a key civil rights decision by the US Supreme Court recently, the result raises serious questions about the future of affirmative-action cases. The high court by a thin 5-to-4 majority tightened the standards for proving bias charges - making it significantly easier for employers to ward off lawsuits alleging certain types of employment discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Up to now, the courts have held that a company's hiring and other job-related practices are illegal if they have the effect of discriminating against women and minorities, even if that bias is not deliberate. Now a firm can legally justify actions that statistically appear to be discriminatory if they can show those practices are based on reasonable business decisions. The suit involved salmon cannery workers in Alaska - mainly Alaskan natives and Filipinos - seeking a larger share of machinist and carpentry jobs.
These workers had prevailed in a lower appellate court, and the case now will be sent back to allow the workers another chance to prove bias, but under stricter standards.
Meanwhile, business interests are hailing the ruling for lifting what they considered an unfair burden of proof on them to disprove even unintended bias. The US Chamber of Commerce and others have considered this type of case a form of frivolous litigation that obstructs their business operations.
Civil rights activists, meanwhile, view this ruling as a key setback for affirmative action and are concerned that the high court's new standards might set aside dozens of claims that have legitimate merit.
It is not too difficult for the courts to determine what is obviously frivolous or unwarranted litigation. Such claims should be sidetracked and, in some instances, the plaintiffs should be discouraged by having the burden of the defendants' costs.
In other cases, particularly civil rights matters, the courts must move cautiously before ruling out - or limiting - actions that speak to the rights of individuals.