House approves automatic fines for filing frivolous lawsuits

The House on Thursday passed legislation that would require courts to fine plaintiffs for bringing frivolous law suits.

Members passed the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, H.R. 2655, in a 228-195 vote. Democrats opposed the bill during debate, and that showed up in the final vote, when just three Democrats supported the bill.

{mosads}The legislation is an attempt to discourage frivolous legal actions that Republicans say tie up thousands of hours and millions of dollars for companies each year.

Under current law, judges have the option of fining plaintiffs who bring time-wasting lawsuits. But Republicans say that option is mostly unused, in part because judges are not required to award defendants legal costs.

“When there is no guarantee of compensation, the victims of frivolous lawsuits have little incentive to spend even more money to pursue additional litigation to have the case declared frivolous,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor, said numerous frivolous suits are filed each year, many of which never result in fines.

“In recent years, frivolous lawsuits have been filed against the Weather Channel for failing to accurately predict storms, against television shows people claimed were too scary, and against fast food companies because inactive children gained weight,” he said.

Democrats opposed the bill by saying it would discourage lawsuits, and civil rights lawsuits in particular.

“I suggest that what we’re doing here this afternoon will turn the clock back to a time when federal rules of civil procedure discouraged civil rights cases, limited judicial discretion, and permitted satellite litigation to run wild,” said House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.).

“H.R. 2655 will have a disastrous impact on the administration of justice.”

He said civil rights cases could be chilled because they often deal with novel legal issues, which makes them more susceptible to rules that require lawyers to verify that they are filing proper cases.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that could slow down the development of common law, since common law is developed by people bringing cases and having judges make decisions.

“Perhaps that’s why all the civil rights groups, all the consumer rights groups, oppose this bill,” Nadler said.

The Obama administration agreed, and said it opposes the bill because of the potential to reduce civil rights claims.

“The administration is particularly concerned that the new requirements could be used to target consumer and civil rights plaintiffs,” the White House said Tuesday. “Consumer abuse and civil rights cases rely heavily on the discovery process to prove the merits of their claims. In addition, civil rights cases often seek to challenge the law or to extend existing precedents.”

Democrats also said that while the bill is meant to reduce unworthy claims, it would slow down legal cases by inviting more defendants to seek dismissals by claiming they are frivolous actions.

But the back-and-forth on this bill is likely to end with Thursday’s House vote, as Senate Democrats are unlikely to call up the bill.

Immediately after, the House voted 347-76 in favor of a Democratic motion to instruct conferees to H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The motion calls on House negotiators to accept Senate language that reauthorizes an emergency management program for dams across the nation.

On Thursday afternoon, Republican and Democratic leaders named House negotiators to the House-Senate conference on the bill.

And in another voice vote, the House passed H.R. 1848, the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, as amended by the Senate. This bill is aimed at streamlining the certification process for new aircraft.

Tags Bob Goodlatte tort reform frivolous lawsuit

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