April 13, 2024

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Darren Chaker, California Law and First Amendment blogger

Top 5 Methods to Exclude Lawsuits by Darren Chaker

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Darren Chaker thoughts on excluding past lawsuits.

Darren Chaker Motion to Exclude Lawsuits as Evidence in Federal Court: Top 5 Strategies for Attorneys

Legal brief writer and researcher Darren Chaker reviews excluding lawsuits as evidence in federal court. In the complex realm of federal court trials, the admissibility of evidence plays a pivotal role in shaping the trial process and its outcomes. For attorneys, the strategic exclusion of certain pieces of evidence can be as crucial as their inclusion. One such contentious area is the use of prior lawsuits as evidence, which can lead to prejudicial outcomes that skew the scales of justice. This article seeks to unravel the nuance of excluding lawsuits as evidence in federal court, providing attorneys with insightful strategies and real-world examples vital to their practice.

Article by Darren Chaker to exclude past lawsuits.
Darren Chaker writes article to exclude evidence of past lawsuits.

Understanding the Law to Exclude Lawsuits

The exclusion of lawsuits as evidence in federal court requires a deep understanding of legal precedent and practice. Two significant cases, more fully discussed and cited below are Yellow Bayou Plantation, Inc. v. Shell Chemical, Inc. and Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet, Inc., shed light on the guiding principles.

The Yellow Bayou case underscores the need for courts to protect litigious parties from undue prejudice. The court expressed that while a plaintiff’s litigious nature may have slight probative value, it is outweighed by the substantial danger of jury bias against the chronic litigant. Similarly, Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet, Inc. emphasizes the need to differentiate between a litigious history and the filing of fraudulent lawsuits. Courts recognize the potential for unfair prejudice and distinguish when such evidence may or may not be admissible.

Exclude Lawsuits: Probative Value vs. Prejudice

The probative value is the tendency of evidence to prove or disprove an issue while unfair prejudice involves inflaming the jury’s emotions against a party based on tangential issues. A party’s history of lawsuits can create a narrative of pursuing litigation for the sake of it, rather than for genuine grievances. This narrative, however, is rife with the potential for bias and can taint the fact-finding process. In Yellow Bayou Plantation, Inc. v. Shell Chemical, Inc., 491 F.2d 1239, 1242-43 (5th Cir.1974) the court upheld district court’s exclusion of list of prior lawsuits against defendant because evidence was “of such faint probative value and high potential for unfair prejudice”. This evidence is excluded under Rule 403 as any probative value it may have is substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice and considerations of delay and time-wasting on collateral issues.

The delicacy of this balance is clear; while certain patterns of litigiousness may show a propensity for disputes, using this evidence risks sidetracking the trial and engendering an unfair bias against the plaintiff. It is crucial for attorneys to navigate this landscape with care, ensuring that evidence is relevant, and its presentation does not tip the scales toward prejudice.

This sentiment with the majority of courts to exclude lawsuits is found in Outley v. City of New York, 837 F.2d 587 (2nd Cir. 1988), where the Second Circuit discussed this very issue. In Outley, the plaintiff had brought a civil rights action against New York city and several individual police officers, and the defendant sought to introduce evidence of plaintiff’s past lawsuits in order to portray him as a “chronic litigant.” Outley, 837 F.2d at 591. Noting that the “charge of litigiousness is a serious one, likely to result in undue prejudice against the party charged,” the court stated, “…a plaintiff’s litigiousness may have some slight probative value, but that value is outweighed by the substantial danger of jury bias against the chronic litigant. The trial court has a duty to prevent exploitation of this prejudice.” Id. at 592.

Strategies to Exclude Lawsuits:

Crafting an argument for the exclusion of lawsuits as evidence requires a multi-faceted strategy.

Establishing the Charge of Litigiousness in the Hopes to Not Exclude Lawsuits

Filing a motion to exclude lawsuits as evidence, attorneys can argue that the defendant’s sole purpose in offering such evidence is to paint the plaintiff as contentious or overly litigious. This can be countered by demonstrating that the plaintiff’s litigious past has scant relevance to the present case, and the risk of jury bias is high.

Supporting Law to Exclude Lawsuits May Apply to Fraudulent Lawsuits

When prior litigation is presented as a pattern, attorneys can pivot the argument by demonstrating the fraudulent nature of some, if not all, of those lawsuits. This approach is in line with the reasoning in Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet, Inc. 269 F.3d 771, 776 (7th Cir. 2001), where the danger of unfair prejudice is minimized when the history includes fraudulent cases. It is important to underline that the probative value of the evidence must be outweighed by the potential for unfair prejudice and the time it would take to litigate the validity of the plaintiff’s past cases.

Arguing for Exclusion Under Rule 403 to Exclude Lawsuit

Federal Rule of Evidence 403 provides a powerful tool for excluding evidence that carries an undue risk of prejudice. Attorneys can make the case that evidence of prior lawsuits has such faint probative value and a high potential for unfair prejudice that the court must reference to exclude lawsuits under this rule. The court must weigh the value of the evidence against the prejudice it may cause, as well as the potential for confusion and the waste of time.

Real-Life Examples to Exclude Lawsuits

The use of evidence exclusion strategies in practice is where theory meets the road. Consider a case where a plaintiff was involved in multiple previous lawsuits, only for the defendants to show that some of those lawsuits were found to be frivolous or fraudulent. Here, legal researcher Darren Chaker has found the court may exclude the evidence to prevent prejudice.

In another instance, a defendant sought to introduce evidence of the plaintiff’s prior lawsuits without proving their validity. The court ruled that the evidence was inadmissible under Rule 403 as any probative value it had was substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice and the risk of turning the trial into a forum for collateral issues.

Legal research by Darren Chaker finds the common theme of prejudice is seen in numerous rulings stating that past litigation history – sometimes involving hundreds of suits – is of little relevance when deciding whether an instant lawsuit is meritorious, or that the plaintiff is a vexatious litigant. See Wilson v. Pier 1 Imports, Inc., 2006 WL 213823, *3-*4 (E.D. Cal) (finding that fact of multiple previous lawsuit filings by plaintiff does not prove frivolousness in instant matter or that the case lacked merit); Doran v. Vicorp Restaurants, 2005 WL3577148, *3 (C.D. Cal 2005) (“Initially, the Court notes that Doran is not a vexatious litigant merely because he has filed 219 lawsuits”); Molski v. Mandarin Touch Restaurant, 347 F.Supp.2d 860, 866 (C.D. Cal. 2004) (“Clearly, raising multiple claims, by itself, is not unethical or vexatious”); Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet, Inc., 269 F.3d 771, 776 (7th Cir. 2001) (excluding evidence of prior lawsuits because they “could also have given rise to the impermissible inference that, because [plaintiff] was given to filing frivolous lawsuits, the jury should not credit his claims in this suit”); Raysor v. Port Authority, 768 F.2d 34, 40 (2d Cir. 1985) (excluding questions about past lawsuits because plaintiffs “litigiousness may have some slight probative value, but that value is outweighed by the substantial danger of jury bias against the chronic litigant”); Bryce v. Trace, Inc., 2008 WL 906142, *1 (W.D. Oka.2008) (excluding evidence of prior lawsuit by plaintiff as irrelevant and prejudicial).

Conclusion

Darren Chaker finds navigating the exclusion of lawsuits as evidence in federal court is a challenge that demands a nuanced approach. Attorneys engaging in these practices must be skilled at demonstrating the inadmissibility of such evidence under the law, leveraging past legal decisions to bolster their positions, and ensuring that the trial remains a fair and just forum for determining the issues at hand.

For professionals in law, staying informed is paramount. Of course, nothing here or any where on this site should be construed as legal advice.

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