Serial Plaintiffs Clog Up Courts, Spend Your Money

The state's fee waiver statute is supposed to give people with little or no income equal access to the court system. In some cases though, the Troubleshooters uncovered, they might have better access than most and it comes at a hefty price to the state.

Cecelia Lebby, for instance, has filed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of lawsuits and is in the process of filing thousands more. Some call her a serial plaintiff. She is indigent, which means the dozens of lawsuits she's filed in New Britain Superior Court haven't actually cost her a dime even though filing fees can run in the hundreds of dollars per case.

For civil suits alone, Lebby has had more than $40,000 in fees waived, but it's your dime that's paying the state marshals to serve her lawsuits. It costs at least $30 to serve someone, often times more and with more than 180 defendants since 2007, Lebby's lawsuits are adding up.

"I couldn't afford to bring the lawsuits myself and I felt the lawsuits were legit, so I filed them," Lebby told the Troubleshooters outside of the New Britain courthouse.

In the last seven years, Lebby has filed 81 civil lawsuits and 45 appeals against businesses like Family Dollar, Walmart, the WWE, CL&P and Target. In one case, she sued the Bret Michaels Fan Club for $22 million because she only received a Christmas card as a member.

"He had product liability. I was supposed to have gotten fan mail for the whole year and all I got was one thing in the mail, so I felt like it was a slap in the face. I felt it wasn't fair, like what happened to the rest of my stuff when I put so much time into devoting myself to being a fan of his?" said Lebby.

In 2010, Judge Patty Pittman stated in a court order "the plaintiff's filings in new and pending cases have become so numerous and so regular that substantial clerk and judge resources are devoted on an almost daily basis in attempting to sort out and respond to her frequent, vague and often illegible filings." 

It was also noted, that none of Lebby's civil lawsuits this far had ever been judged in her favor. Since then, almost all of them have either been dismissed or denied as well.

"Most of them did get dismissed, yes." said Lebby.

She's not the only serial plaintiff racking up a bill at the state's time and expense either. 

Judith Fusari of New Britain is too. She's filed upwards of $55,000 worth of lawsuits – again, partially paid for by you.

According to court documents, Fusari has never won a lawsuit. Her filings through are so numerous and "frivolous," a Superior Court judge in New Britain ordered Fusari "permanently enjoined from filing any civil action in the Judicial District of New Britain" unless the court determines the suit to be "non-frivolous." 

It's a move legal experts say is very rare. Hartford Superior Court adopted the same order against Fusari less than a year later.

When asked why she had filed so many lawsuits, Fusari declined to answer any questions.

Since 2010, more than 45,000 fee waivers have been granted by the courts per law each year, totaling $25.8 million that will never be collected by the state, a majority though are legitimate.

Wyatt Kopp, a former court employee, said serial plaintiffs like Lebby and Fusari clog the courts and he's trying to do something about.

"The court pays because it's wasted resources, it's wasted court time. These judges could be doing something other than filing extensive memorandums of law as to why the lawsuit against the Bret Michaels Fan Club should be dismissed," said Kopp.

Kopp wants the state to amend its fee waiver statute to require community service as a means of checks and balance for those who can't afford to pay.

"It would put them in a position to actually stop and think, is it really worth it for me to do this?" said Kopp.

Rep. Timothy Bowles, a Democrat from Preston, thinks it could work and recently submitted a bill that would do just that.

"I think Kopp came up with a fairly creative suggestion in terms of how to handle it," said Bowles.

The proposed reform would require community service only when an indigent is seeking a waiver for a lawsuit involving money damages, like the ones Cecelia Lebby and Judith Fusari are known for. 

The amount of community service would be measured by state minimum wage in the amount of hours necessary to pay those fees. Plus, if the indigent recovers a judgment, all court fees would be repaid to the state.

"You know, it may not be as radical as it first appears and there are going to be some instances where I think something like that would be reasonable as long as it doesn't in any way stop someone from a legitimate claim," said Jim Bergenn, an attorney with Shipman & Goodwin.

But a spokesperson for The Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut said he didn't think the proposed reform was a good idea, calling it poor policy. 

When asked if she would do community service for each lawsuit, Lebby told the Troubleshooters by phone, "No, not at this time because I don't have the time, I'm back and forth from the courthouse so much."

She did agree though to return the fees that have been waived for her on one condition, "If I win all of my lawsuits, I'll pay back the state the money," Lebby said.

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