So Sue Me

The intersection between law and psychology

How to Deal With Litigious People and Frivolous Lawsuits

What to do when someone threatens to sue you for something ridiculous.

America: land of the free and home of the litigious. 

For some people, the knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to threaten a lawsuit. These people will threaten to sue you for trespass if the vines in your backyard grow over their precious property line by an inch. They will threaten to sue you for intentional infliction of emotional distress if you dare criticize them in any way. They will threaten to sue you for assault and battery if you trip and inadvertently brush against them. They will sue you for discrimination and harassment if you try to argue with them. This is not to make light of litigants with actual meritorious claims of trespass or emotional distress or anything else; but threats of lawsuits have become increasingly common. 

Most likely, if you are a non-hermit adult, you have been verbally threatened with a frivolous lawsuit at least some point in your life. This can be an intimidating experience. Below are five important things to keep in mind. 

Most threats do not result in actual lawsuits.

Most people who threaten baseless or frivolous lawsuits do not follow through. They are simply frustrated, vindicative, and cannot think of a way to vent their discomfort besides threatening you. If this was the caveman days, they would probably challenge you to a fight around the fire pit. If this was the 17th Century, they would probably challenge you to a duel. But today, neither of those things are options. Hence, the lawsuit. A lawsuit is a 21st century, American equivalent of a duel––fighting with papers instead of swords, risking money instead of blood.

Keep in mind that people who routinely threaten baseless lawsuits are often just adult versions of playground bullies. They are mad at you, and instead of taking their anger out in a healthy, mature way, or working things out like considerate adults, they want to scare you by making you believe they have the weight of the legal system behind them. They want you to lay awake at night and worry. It gives them a sense of power. Keep this in mind, and do not let a threat worry you inordinately. Treat the threat the same way you would treat a child’s anger tantrum––stay calm, try to muster some sympathy for this obviously ill-adjusted person, let it blow over, and continue on with your life. 

Now, if you do get served with notice that a lawsuit has been filed against you, then the threat has eventuated and it is time to take action.

Do not panic.

Do not panic. You are not the first person to be frivolously sued. Judges, attorney, and the court system are well aware that people will try to abuse the court system, and there are built-in safeguards that can dispose of such cases relatively quickly. “Frivolous litigation” is an actual legal term––the practice of carrying on a lawsuit that, due to its lack of legal merit, has little to no chance of being won. There are federal rules and state statutes that sanction attorneys for representing clients with frivolous claims. Legal vehicles, such a motion to dismiss, can also quickly dispose of baseless lawsuits before you even have to answer the complaint.

Let me repeat. Do not panic. Courts do not like frivolous lawsuits. In fact, some states punish people who routinely file frivolous lawsuits by adding them to a “vexatious litigator” list. If the lawsuit being filed against you is truly baseless, you are generally unlikely to be tangled in years and years of litigation. Comfort yourself by remembering that the legal system is not unfamiliar with the idea of absurd lawsuits filed for harassment purposes. To wit, you are not alone.

Be the better person.

Keep in mind that people who file frivolous lawsuits are usually lonely and angry souls with too much spare time and too few friends. It takes a level of desperation and self-loathing to expend the expenses and time it takes to file a frivolous lawsuit. Try to muster some sympathy for this person, for your own good, because it may help you avoid trial. Try to settle out of court––apologize for anything that you might have done wrong, compromise as much as you can without sacrificing your dignity, and try to empathize a little. Sometimes a little kindness goes a long way. 

Of course, in some situations, this will be impracticable. In which case, it is time to defend yourself. 

Consult a local attorney.

Find an attorney in your area. If you have any attorney friends, ask them to recommend a local attorney who can help you. If you do not know any attorneys, there are a lot of websites that will direct you to local attorneys, and even offer ratings from past customers. If you cannot afford an attorney, look for local law schools and inquire about free clinics.

When you find an attorney, ask for a consultation. Some attorneys will give these free of charge. When you meet with your attorney, he or she should be attentive, patient, accessible, and alert while listening to your story. You should feel comfortable talking to him or her. If you do not feel safe and understood, find another attorney. Remember, lawyers are meant to be advocates––someone to take up your cause, speak for you, support you, and strive to protect your interests above anyone else’s. It is important that you find someone you can trust.

Seek a therapist to help you through the process.

Acknowledge that being sued is traumatizing. It is scary and stressful. It is not just paperwork and business––it is deeply personal. You will most likely feel personally, individually targeted in a way that you have never felt before. It can be jarring to see your name written on the court documents, to see allegations against you made in writing.

Find a therapist that you can trust to help you through this process. Meet with him or her at least once a week, and talk about whatever is weighing you down––how ridiculous the lawsuit is, how stressed out you are, what the new developments in your case are, how you feel, how this is affecting your family and finances, and how you are coping with everything.  

A lawsuit does not have to take over your life. Wait for the storm to blow over.  And while you wait––take care of yourself.

 

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Disclaimer:

This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this blog or any of the email links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.

Ruth Sarah Lee, JD is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an attorney specializing in complex business litigation.

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