City Paper is not for tourists
Like most District residents, Varadarajan Ramachandran has a lot of gripes. He complains about the government, points the finger at companies and people who have wronged him, and even maligns India, his homeland. But Ramachandran is not one for idle bitching.
This summer, after Federal Express refused to deliver some packages because Ramachandran did not pay delivery charges, he promptly sued. He sought an award of $1 million, which he said would be used to pay off his outstanding balance and start a fresh account. Under the terms of the complaint, Ramachandran would pocket any leftover cash in the account in 2000.
Federal Express was not the only target of Ramachandran’s litigation machine, which churned out at least a dozen lawsuits over the summer against people who compromised what Ramachandran calls “the good will, the property, the competitive position, the development efforts, and the future prospects of the plaintiff.”
In one particularly vivid case, Ramachandran sued Congress for $100,000 for allowing Independence Day to be celebrated on July 4, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He argued that the celebration should take place on the day Great Britain recognized the colonies as an independent country. He’s capable of enormous creativity in his legal efforts: Ramachandran attempted to sue the government of India in U.S. District Court for violating the Indian constitution by letting him fall victim to racial discrimination in America. He filed suit against a woman named Jan Carlson of Geneva, Ill., saying she “encroached plaintiff’s privacy through public prophecy.” And he wants $1 billion from the United States District Court of Illinois for ruling against him in an earlier case.
Ramachandran is one of the most prolific foot soldiers in the District’s army of chronic litigants, who flood the pro se division of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with their daily grievances. Sometimes insane, seldom successful, but nearly always petty, the suits flow like spring water into the court, which registers between 20 and 45 cases a week, according to Senior Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. Pro se plaintiffs represent themselves, so they can sue to their hearts’ content without worrying about hefty hourly fees from lawyers. They keep litigating in the belief that if they file early and often, they will eventually strike gold.
Robinson says chronic pro se litigants have fairly individuated definitions of justice. Once they feel they’ve been crossed, they believe it’s the court’s job to make things right. “And they will take that idea to their grave,” says Robinson. Further, he says, they lack a tight grip on reality. “Many pro se litigants have severe emotional problems. Usually they have severe financial problems. Many, I suspect, are mentally ill,” he says.
You can see where he’s coming from when you look at some of their filings. One of Ramachandran’s statements says his “savings account amount=$0.50; on hand $0.25, got from floor.” He isn’t always coherent in his arguments and never cites a specific injury done to him on a specific date.
Matthew Page, another courthouse regular, filed 10 suits in June and July of this year, six of them on June 13 alone. That sounds like a lot of work, but as the entire text of one complaint proves, filing a pro se suit isn’t much harder than taking a phone message. “I need the electronic audio/videotapes to identify stalkers, harassers, conspirator whom are breaching the public peace and causing me to have mental anguish on 06/1/96 from 11:30 to 1:00 p.m.,” reads one of Page’s suits, which was filed against Metro.
Metro spokesman Rod Burfield says that pro se suits like Page’s don’t exactly top Metro’s list of legal problems. “We do have a couple of pro se people who have filed the same suit against us four or five times, and we just go to court and get it dismissed,” says Burfield. The best strategy to minimize exposure to frivolous pro se cases, says Burfield, is to avoid out-of-court cash settlements. “The word on the street is that we take them all to court, and you can’t get Metro to settle.”
Page’s other suits suggest he should bag the court appearances and spend his time writing thrillers. Reads one complaint: The stalker “shot me with a laszer (sic) pen/pen gun device.” Then, “the Dulles Airport commuter bus service is stalking me and do act peculiar and are conspirators.” The plot crescendoes in a case where Page filed suit against Washington Flyer because, he says, an “alien white male tossed insect on me: stat: attempted murder.” On a supplemental page, Page includes detailed sketches of the attempted murderer, the bug in question (“Note: I hit insect off arm and put soap on it to kill it.”), and, for some reason, the alien’s watch, all done in pencil, felt-tip pen, and gold ink.
The bug incident shook Page enough that he checked into the emergency room at George Washington University Medical Center. But instead of placing Page in intensive care, intake specialists tried to steer him to the center’s mental health ward. Page filed suit against the center.
Even pro se litigants who have legitimate complaints rarely know what to do with them, according to Robinson. Ramachandran, for example, says he was lured to the U.S. by a company that offered him a job as a computer programmer. By Ramachandran’s account, the company promised to handle his immigration paperwork but fired him when money got tight. Several of the suits Page has filed involve missing veterans’ assistance checks, which he cites as his only income. Wendy Bhambri, a spokesperson for the court, says that in such cases the court cannot offer legal advice but maintains a list of lawyers who take pro se cases on a pro bono basis.
The court’s job of sorting through the frivolous cases and adjudicating the serious ones involves loads of paperwork and hours of meticulous scrutiny. Bhambri won’t say how much the court pays to process claims, but Robinson notes, “We’re running short-staffed and have been for the last six or seven years.”
To make matters worse, court clerks have to spend a lot of quality time with eccentrics like Ramachandran and Page. By now, they know Ramachandran by name and even had to have security officers remove him once after he started hollering death threats. But Ramachandran can keep coming back as often as he wants—just to exercise his right to redress slights and injustices through the courts.
District judges can curtail what they believe to be abuses of the process. “The court has issued ‘stop filing’ orders in situations where chronic litigants file frivolous claims or claims over which the court does not have jurisdiction,” Bhambri explains.
Robinson estimates that about 60 pro se litigants—including Ramachandran and Page—are subject to an intermediate order that requires court approval before they file any more suits. So far, Ramachandran hasn’t had a new suit that meets the court’s approval, though he has appealed several of his earlier cases.
Judge James Robertson, who handled Page’s filings, has allowed a couple of his cases involving missing veterans’ checks to go through. They were quickly dismissed, but only because Robertson thought Page’s complaint wasn’t specific enough, not because he considered it frivolous.
Prisons are one of the more productive launching grounds for pro se actions. In the District, Bhambri says, “The majority of the court’s pro se…filings come from Lorton and other federal penal institutions.” In April, Congress got into the act by passing litigation reform that bars prisoners from filing pro se suits if they have already filed three cases that were dismissed as frivolous. Bhambri says the new law has precipitated a decline in the court’s caseload over the last few months.
As long as the courthouse is open for business, litigation aficionados like Ramachandran and Page will avail themselves of the opportunity. They’ll keep on going to the library and consulting textbooks, thinking that if they just come up with the right legal language and get someone with a robe to listen to their arguments, they’ll finally win a case.—Kathy Jones