Appellate Division Affirms Courts’ Obligation to Control Frivolous Litigation
This appeal addressed the courts’ ability to limit ongoing filings by a pro se petitioner involving the estate of her aunt. Eventually the trial court precluded the party from filing additional pleadings against the estate, its beneficiaries, and its attorneys, without first obtaining leave from the court.
Three prior appeals had already been filed the petitioner. The dispute centered on a will contest. In 2014, the trial court granted summary judgment against the petitioner. Thereafter she filed more than thirty pleadings over four years, aimed at reversing the summary judgment.
At one point, in 2015, the trial court granted the estate’s motion to impose sanctions for frivolous litigation. The Appellate Division reversed that ruling, as not supported by a proper certification under the Court Rules.
In 2016, the petitioner filed claims in federal court against Bergen County and the Surrogate’s Office of Bergen County. These claims failed.
Later, in 2019, the petitioner filed a motion to amend prior rulings of the trial court, to remove degrading references to her in those decisions, and to have the judge recuse himself. The court denied that motion.
Around that same time, the trial court granted a motion by the estate to preclude the petitioner from any additional filings without leave from the assignment judge of Bergen County. The trial judge included a 27-page opinion on the constitutional and public policy bases for limiting the petitioner’s filings.
The petitioner appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed. It explained that courts have the inherent authority, if not the obligation, to control frivolous or vexatious litigation. Where traditional sanctions fail to deter a litigant, an assignment judge may enjoin that party from bringing further actions. However, this power must be used sparingly, and balanced against the fundamental public right to access to the courts.
In this case, the Appellate Division observed that the petitioner never relented in her filings, despite numerous rulings against her and her brush with sanctions. The appeals court found no basis to disturb the trial court conclusion that the petitioner’s filings demonstrated a pattern of frivolous litigation designed to harass the estate, its attorneys, the court, and the court staff.
The estate cross-appealed the trial court’s denial of financial sanctions against the petitioner. After reviewing the standards under R. 1:4-8 for frivolous filings, the Appellate Division noted that the standard of review on appeal was abuse of discretion. It found no basis to disturb the trial court’s denial of financial sanctions against the petitioner. The trial court had sufficiently sanctioned the petitioner by enjoining further filings, and had determined that monetary sanctions would be inadequate to curtail the petitioner.