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Filing Lawsuit Under a False Name Leads to Dismissal:
Judge Carnes of the Eleventh Circuit just published a pretty interesting decision on whether a district court can dismiss a civil case with prejudice because the plaintiff had filed his complaint and litigated the case up to trial using a false name. Here's the opening paragraph:
If, as the Bible says, "[a]n honest answer is like a kiss on the lips," Proverbs 24:26 (N.I.V.), a pleading founded on a lie is like a kick in the gut. The question this appeal presents is whether a district court can dismiss a case with prejudice because the plaintiff filed and litigated his complaint under a false name.
The Eleventh Circuit's answer: Yes, it can. Thanks to Howard for the link.
DSM:
"Permitting the plaintiff to pursue his claim would take the punch out of the punishment for pummeling the probity of the judicial system."

Whoa. My guess is that 'permitting the plaintiff to pursue' was written honestly, and then the judge noticed the alliteration. After that there was no turning back..
9.12.2006 5:19pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The one thing the court doesn't say is how it, or the defendants, were actually hurt by the concealment of the "true" name. All the bad stuff the guy did appears to have been under the names he actually gave to the court. What relevant stuff was hidden by the concealment of his true name? On this point, the court gives us nothing more than its outrage.

I could imagine another case going the other way with a more sympathetic plaintiff, and there instead of the Bible we would get Shakespeare "A rose by any other name...."

Finally, I don't really understand what's "interesting" about this decision.
9.12.2006 6:00pm
Houston Lawyer:
It's always interesting to read a decision where the trial judge appropriately smacked down an idiot and the appellate court high-fives the trial judge.
9.12.2006 6:07pm
John (mail):
The case seemed to turn on whether the use of the false names in the suit (names which the plaintiff had been using during the encounters with the law that underlay the suit) was intentional or negligent. The trial court found it was intentional and the appellate court affirmed. And yet, the appellate court itself in making a critical point used the FALSE NAME of a children's game:

"A trial is not a masquerade party nor is it a game of judicial hide-n-seek . . ." (Slip Op. at 9)

Now we all know it's "hide AND seek." Was this intentional? Or merely negligent? Does an opinion that relies false names have precential effect?

Difficult questions...
9.12.2006 6:19pm
TFKW:
From the description here I went intot eh decision thinking "The bastard!" and looking forward to reading a story of an evil plaintiff being thwarted. After reading it I found yself sympathizing with the plaintiff, whose explanation was this:

"Well, when I was sentenced, then I went to prison. I notified them that that was not my name and that I wanted to have a—change to my name. I asked them to change it to my name. And they told me that I had to continue to use that name until my sentence was over. And that's why I put the complaint under that name, because I couldn't have it under my name, as this was the name that I had in prison."

The opinion never satisfactorily explains why this ought to be sanctioned, IMO.
9.12.2006 6:21pm
elChato (mail):
DSM:

good observation, and do I detect a note of similar whimsy here?

"In a spell of speciousness, the plaintiff argues that dismissal is too drastic a sanction because the defendants could have uncovered his falsehood earlier if they had diligently pursued their discovery rights."
9.12.2006 6:27pm
The Original TS (mail):
This isn't my area but I've always been under the impression that the common law rule was that you can use any name you like so long as you are not doing so for fraudulent purposes. For example, my recollection is that only a minority of actors who adopt screen names bother to go through the trouble of legally changing their names and none of the authors who use pen names do.

In other words, there is no law against aliases. There is a law against using aliases to commit fraud. There does not appear to be any allegation that the defendants were harmed by the plaintiff using one of his aliases on the pleadings. The judge was simply upset that the plaintiff had used a "false" name.

Frankly, I'm a bit personally concerned by this opinion. I personally sign pleadings with a "false" name all the time in that I omit my middle name and use a shortened variation of my first name. I think (I hope!) the 11th Circuit blew it here.
9.12.2006 6:45pm
Adam Scales (mail):
It's risky to say much without reading the District Court Opinion, but I don't find the 11th Circuit opinion persuasive. Certainly, is lacks the spirit of liberality that ought to animate a pro se Section 1983 case that was solid enough to go to trial.

How can this have been a scheme to defraud when the plaintiff coughed it up with ONE LOUSY QUESTION? Read the circuit opinion - the man doesn't appear to be evading the truth at all. Moreover, people familiar with criminal proceedings recognize the widespread use of aliases in pleading (ironically, this is typically done by clever prosecutors, e.g., "United States v. John Smith a/k/a "Cop Killa").

It is equally remarkable that this suit was brought against the arresting officers. Think about that. This was not a civil suit against a fellow motorist who might be very interested to know the true background of the plaintiff. It was against the very authorities to whom he had given false names. I find it implausible in the extreme that a competent state lawyer could have the relevant arrest and conviction records in view without perceiving that some of these names had to be false. What, exactly, did the lawyer for the police officers think this case (which went to trial!) was about?

Crooks are not the smartest people, and maybe this guy really did try to pull a fast one...for reasons no one has identified...but this decision leaves this stickler-for-procedure-tough-on-crime professor mystified.
9.12.2006 6:46pm
John (mail):
Oops. When I wrote "precential" it was a typo for "precedential." I assure you the error was merely negligent...
9.12.2006 6:48pm
Tennessean (mail):
I am late to the game, but the line DSM noted grabbed my attention. (For lazy readers of my ilk: "Permitting the plaintiff to pursue his claim would take the punch out of the punishment for pummeling the probity of the judicial system.")

When I worked was behind the scenes instead of working in the muck, one of the guiding principles was that there should always be respect for the system, and that respect for the system demanded that we treat the parties with respect. Glib writing like this (and clearly this can be nothing but a judicial laugh) nets a cheap laugh at the expense of that integrity. Obviously, I don't know that this plaintiff can complain, but the party he sued deserves better, and the system deserves better.

Indeed, how can the court dismiss _with prejudice_ a potentially legitimate lawsuit for, essentially, the failure to act with proper decorum and respect when it offers school-yard yucks like this?

(For the record, judicial emanations like those from Judge Kent are not in a similar classification, in my opinion, for they operate differently and with different intent; in distinguishing writings of that sort, I withhold any judgment.)
9.12.2006 7:06pm
Tennessean (mail):
In light of Mr. Scales's point and my other questions, I wonder whether pride in the witticisms played any role in the decision to have this opinion published?

(Perhaps I should note that, while I presume Judge Carnes was ultimately the final drafter/reviewer of this opinion, I have no doubt that Judge Carnes is a more able jurist than I'd be even with a legion of clerks to back me up and a handful of juridicial ethicists to boot, and on the prior occasions I recall my thoughts crossing paths with his judicial handiwork, I often found myself in agreement with both his results and his reasoning, which is probably to my credit, not his.)
9.12.2006 7:13pm
David Walser:
One of the commenters points out that the court did not discuss how the defendants were harmed by the plaintiff's use of a false name. While the court did not dwell on the actual harm, it did discuss (or at least list) several harms that the use of a false name might entail for the court and parties before the court. The court seemed satisfied that an interest in preventing the potential harms that might derive from not following its rules warranted dismissing this case with prejudice. (I've noted courts tend to enforce their own rules with more zeal than they have for rules enacted by the legislature, but that could be a mistake in perception on my part.) As to whether there was any real harm, we don't know. Just as we don't know what the defense might have learned had they been able to search for information based on his real identity, which jurors might have been excluded, etc.

As for the question of whether the defendant intended to mislead the court or not, I found it interesting that it was only after he quit representing himself that his true name came out. I don't know, but strongly suspect, that his attorney learned his real name and tried to "correct" his use of a false name by asking the question she did at trial. If that's the case, the fact he readily coughed up his real name while under oath does not indicate his prior prevarications were not made with malice.
9.12.2006 7:18pm
Adam Scales (mail):
David makes a decent point about the arrival of counsel. I wonder if this is what I would have done as an attorney, if David's suspicions are correct. It appears that about eight months elapsed between the time he retained counsel and the trial. Wouldn't a better strategy have been an amended complaint? Still, this could mean, as David suggests, that he was untruthful until he had to be otherwise.

Now, I really must read that DCT opinion.
9.12.2006 7:32pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
Dismissal with prejudice is an extraordinary sanction, especially where, as here, nothing in the record indicates that the defendants suffered any harm from the sanctioned act nor indicates any intention by the plaintiff to defraud.

As an aside, my legal name includes the suffix "Jr." which I haven't used in years, including omitting it from court filings. Technically I am not using my 'real' name and I can think of hypothetical harm/confusion that could result. Does this mean future suffixless filings could result in dismissal? If not, what's the difference?
9.12.2006 9:42pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The difference is you are not a pro se plaintiff trying to sue the police, and the courts are much more likely to give you a break.
9.12.2006 10:57pm
Fub:
Duffy Pratt wrote:
The difference is you are not a pro se plaintiff trying to sue the police, and the courts are much more likely to give you a break.
The decision refers to trial court findings of fact without articulating them in the text of the decision:
After hearing all that the plaintiff's counsel had to say, the district court entered detailed findings and conclusions, a copy of which we have attached to this opinion as Appendix A.
I'd sure like to know what actual harm to defendant's ability to respond that the plaintiff's use of another name caused. But Appendix A isn't in the file.
9.13.2006 5:05am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
What garbage.

At common law you could call yourself anything you wanted and spell it any way you wanted absent intent to defraud.

The acts here didn't involve fraud. It looks like the party did all relevent acts under his assumed names. He seemed to like them better.

This "official name" thing is a European invention that should have no part of US law. [Swiss Cantons maintain name books in which they trace families via their name through the years.]

Commie crapola.
9.13.2006 9:41am
Don Miller (mail):
Not a lawyer, but how is the plaintiffs use of a false name legally any different than people who try to file lawsuits anonymously? Jane Doe, John Smith, Roe, etc?

Is it because he didn't say, "I am not using my real name"?

I can see an overacheiving lawyer try to use this as precident to break an anonymous lawsuit in the future.

Maybe I am reading too much into it though.
9.13.2006 11:32am
The Original TS (mail):
Don,

People don't file lawsuits anonymously. For procedural reasons, it's fairly common to file a lawsuit naming unknown defendants. Once you figure out who they are though, you substitute in their real names.

Less commonly, plaintiffs can petition the court to have their real identity redacted from public documents when they have particularly strong privacy concerns. Roe v. Wade is the most famous example. The plaintiff, styled "Jane Roe" in all the pleadings, was really a person named Norma McCorvey. No one (apart from the parties and the court) knew who she really was until she went public in the 1980s.
9.13.2006 2:25pm
Fub:
The Original TS wrote:
People don't file lawsuits anonymously. ...

Less commonly, plaintiffs can petition the court to have their real identity redacted from public documents when they have particularly strong privacy concerns.
Agreed that is true. But I think that Don may have been getting at something a little different. Bear with me here.

The basis of the appellate court's opinion seems to be that plaintiff actually defrauded the court by filing under an assumed name. The appellate court cited trial court's findings on that, but the decision doesn't say what fraud actually happened. It did incorporate the trial court's findings by reference as "Appendix A", but it only recited possible harm, as David Walser pointed out above.

As you previously wrote,
I've always been under the impression that the common law rule was that you can use any name you like so long as you are not doing so for fraudulent purposes.
So maybe Don is concerned that parties may seek and obtain dismissals with prejudice because somebody filed under an innocuously and nonfraudulently assumed name, or even as "John Smith" instead of as "Jonathon Fauntleroy Smith, Jr."

Appendix A, as yet not available here, might definitively defuse fretful future fears foreboding proliferation of fruitful pettifoggery.
9.13.2006 3:54pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Hmm, I'm curious about Appendix A, too, and why, if what Plaintiff whatsisname did was so transparently a bad thing as to warrant dismissal with prejudice, it isn't spelled out in the opinion, as opposed to an appendix.

My recollection is even more specific: that the common law says you not only can CALL yourself anything you want, but that you may be entitled to create a legal recordation of the fact that you've now decided to be called by your new name, rather than your old name, unless THAT RECORDATION is found to be pursued for purposes of fraud. There are other "non-fraud" exceptions to that right, among others, specifically, depending on which state you live in, e.g., "@*", "707" and "Mysteri Nigger".

So, what'd plaintiff do?

*&*&^^%%$##!<>
9.13.2006 9:03pm
MassRepUnsure (mail):
Does this mean future suffixless filings could result in dismissal? If not, what's the difference?

Because Jon Smith puts other parties on notice that your name is likely Jonathan Smith and may be Jonathan Smith, III. Filing under the name "Carlos Vazquez" does not put people on notice that your real name may be "Cesar Vasquez."

Also, Appendix A with the District Court opinion starts at pg. 13. This opinion is similar to the Appeals Court opinion in that it based on the potential for harm to the proceedings (and court) rather than a finding of actual harm.
9.14.2006 1:18am
VLP (mail):
I think it is worth mentioning that while the case was initially filed pro se, the plaintiff was later represented by volunteer attorneys for the original district court action and then another volunteer attorney did the appeal.
9.14.2006 12:17pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
OK, I've read all the attachments, and notwithstanding the court's repeated, question-begging assertion that "Plaitiff filed his suit using a false name"(Shocking!) I cannot find an explanation of the exact nature of the prejudice, if any, suffered by defendants, or the court, under these peculiar facts, and I have the increasing sense that the court regarded Plaintiff as a pain in the butt, and a felonious one at that, and that if they could find a way to get rid of his jailhouse lawsuit, they were going to do it...

If I have this correct, ol' whatisname
(a) was arrested, maybe several times, under some name. They took his picture, and printed him.
(b) Then he got convicted, maybe more than once, under some name. They booked him into some prison or other, probably took his picture and printed him again.
(c) He's in the jailhouse now,with some name on his file, where we can take his picture and print him again, so it's pretty easy to figure out oif he's the same guy as in (a) and (b) and,
most critically:
(d) his lawsuit seems to arise from something that happened back at (a), and he is asserting "I'm the guy that these officer defendants did bad stuff to while they were arresting me, back at (a)".

Unless I'm missin' something, lmost uniquely among all possible imaginable plaintiffs asserting all possible causes of action, it would seem that it is possible to determine, to a near-scientific certainty, that Plaintiff, (whatever name you call him) is "the same guy" all the way through a-d. How many people get their pictures and prints taken when they are injured in an auto accident,
when treated by their doctors for their injuries, and when they file their suit for injuries?
9.15.2006 8:22pm