Fred Owings Sullivan was one of the busiest "lawyers" in Washington until last Wednesday, when a federal judge banished him "permanently and forever" from the U.S. District Court here.
Sullivan's best -- and only -- client was himself; he had filed 110 lawsuits over the past two years in his own behalf, chronicling life's little annoyances in enough legalese to make each of them a federal case.
He became one of the most prolific members of a small and often feisty group of more than 600 "pro se" litigants -- prisoners, students, government workers, foreigners, free spirits and poor wanderers -- who come before the federal court each year without the help of a lawyer.
Their complaints made up one-fourth of the court's civil caseload in 1978, according to a study prepared a year ago for the D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference. Estimates are that more than half of those cases are filed by persons deemed by the court to be paupers, who don't have to pay a $10 filing fee. They are then screened by a single judge who decides whether they should be dismissed immediately or allowed to move through the court system.
The challenge in "pro se" cases is to separate the valid claims from the nuisances -- not always an easy task. Court papers filed by individuals, untouched by lawyers, often bog down in ill-crafted attempts at legalese.
But, somewhere, underneath it all, may be a genuine issue for the court. A pro se petition filed in Florida by Clarence Gideon, for example, led to the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that all criminal defendants have a right to a free lawyer. And a group of inmates from the District's Lorton Reformatory went to court on their own, seeking better conditions, and wound up with free lawyers from the prestigious Washington firm of Covington & Burling -- and a full-blown hearing now under way in the federal court here.
But that wasn't the case with Fred Sullivan.
Sullivan once sued the Walgreen's drug store at New York's Port Authority bus terminal for $500 billion after a cash register clerk tried to have him thrown out of the store. He submitted his complaint to the court scrawled on both sides of a brown paper bag.
A New Haven, Conn. laundromat was the target of another Sullivan lawsuit -- for $500,000 in damages -- after he was allegedly refused use of a clothes dryer. And Sullivan sought "$100 zillion" in damages from a Rockville roller rink where he said he was refused admission. That case was filed with the court on the back of an orange pamphlet for the 1971 American Bar Association meeting in London.
Sullivan, 47, was seated at an Underwood typewriter in the file room at the clerk's office last week, plucking away at what may have been his 111th lawsuit, when two deputy U.S. marshals stepped up and announced that his legal career was over -- at least in that courthouse -- because he had become a nuisance.
It was the first time in seven years that a judge had taken the extraordinary step of barring a man and his lawsuits from the courthouse -- unless he can pay the filling fee, which Sullivan, as a pauper, cannot. Under federal law, judges have broad authority to administer the courts, subject to review by a higher court.
All 110 of Sullivan's cases "have proven to be frivolous and in bad faith," Judge George L. Hart Jr. wrote in a two-page order evicting Sullivan from the court. Moreover, Hart said, Sullivan is "wont to use part of the clerk's office as a base of operations and has become accustomed to sitting at tables with his shoes removed and with bundles of papers and other materials spread across the tables." The judge also said Sullivan often is loud and abusive to personnel in the clerk's office and that this hurt morale and efficiency.
Sullivan took the news wearing his shoes and a blue baseball cap decorated with a Kennedy campaign button. He sat down at his typewriter to fire off a response, but was stopped by the deputy marshal who had read Hart's order. He then stuffed his papers into a brown paper bag and left, mumbling in protest.
"I thought after 110 suits, that was enough," Judge Hart said in an interview in his chambers last week. Every one of Sullivan's cases was thrown out of court, Hart said; a fair number were appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but were also dismissed.
Since 1974, Hart, a semiretired senior judge, has screened all cases brought by individuals "in forma pauperis" -- without payment of fees or costs. b
Hart said that he dismisses about 75 percent of the more than 300 cases that come before him each year, not only because they are frivolous, but sometimes because they are filed in the wrong court, because so much time has passed the problem no longer exists or because the individual has not exhausted remedies outside the court, such as through government agencies.
"Pro se" cases usually involve claims for government benefits, such as social security, civil rights and job discrimination complaints, requests for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act and petitions from prisoners who claim their legal rights have been denied.
In civil cases, court rules leave the decision of whether to dismiss a case up to the judge, and federal courts across the country have their own systems for screening pro se cases. Hart, who said he would be "very happy to have someone else" take over the screening process, said he sometimes takes a little friendly teasing from his colleagues whose patience has been worn thin by the inexperienced pro se litigants that Hart has sent through the court.
"Frivolous" is the word most commonly used when pro se suits are dismissed. Last September, Hart made such a ruling in the case of Melvin Gale, an inmate at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., who had filed a suit seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act. But, last Thursday, the appeals court here told Hart that he had made a mistake.The majority opinion, however, was accompanied by a stinging dissent full of tough remarks about court delays, frivolous cases and wasted time, which Hart said he would like to frame.
In the six-page opinion, released the day after Fred Sullivan was banned from the courthouse, freshman appeals court Judge Abner J. Mikva said that while portions of Gale's complaint were "clearly frivolous," the inmate had adequately stated his claim.
Judge George E. MacKinnon's eight-page dissent began like this:
". . . (It is misguided sympathy for (Gale) to send him further along the frivolous road.It also indicates why our court docket is jammed and decisions in meritorious cases of great magnitude are delayed."
Although the Supreme Court has warned that cases filed by individuals should not be held the same tough standards required for lawyers, MacKinnon wrote, that does not mean the majority has to "pander to the legal ignorance" of the individual.
The very next day, Robert L. Smith of Silver Spring, an employe of the U.S. Customs Service, went to the federal court on his own contending that he was the victim of sex discrimination.
In his neatly typed, four-page lawsuit, Smith said he had been denied sick leave to care for his newborn child, a privilege Smith said is regularly granted to women.
Smith paid the $10 filing fee to the court, plus an additional $9 to have his complaint served on the secretary of the Treasury, the director of the Officed of Personnel Management and the U.S. Attorney. Because he paid the fee, Smith's case was then placed on the "wheel" in the clerk's office for random assignment to one of the judges of the court.
Smith actually has an advantage over most pro se litigants -- he spent a year in law school and said he had "a pretty good idea of how to handle the wording and format . . ." of a lawsuit.
Once, Smith said, he hired a "Lady lawyer" to bring a complaint for him at a federal agency. But before the case was resolved, the lawyer quit the business and Smith said he was left in the lurch -- and out $1,000.
This time, Smith said, he figured he'd file his own case first, wait for the government's response and then decide whether to hire a lawyer.