Fighting Back Against Frivolous Lawsuits and Meritless Claims

By Seth M. Rosenstein

Businesses and individuals facing the prospect of litigation often ask legal counsel whether they can sue or be sued over a particular set of facts and circumstances, and the proper response is generally that “Anybody can file a lawsuit against anyone about anything.”  That is not to say that every claim or suit has merit or should be pursued; far from it.  But the reality is that the courthouse doors swing wide open for even the most absurd litigants asserting baseless and frivolous claims.

Want to sue your dentist for supposedly putting listening devices in your fillings? No one will stop you. Want to fight a lawsuit by alleging that the plaintiff’s true identity as an alien from a galaxy far, far away bars their claims?  The court clerk will accept your filing with no questions.  In both state and federal courts, the bar for filing a lawsuit or pleading is essentially non-existent.

However, once a frivolous lawsuit or claim is filed, those who must waste their time, money, and effort fighting back have powerful ways to hold such parties – and their attorneys – accountable for abusing the judicial process and help them recoup the fees and costs attendant to defending claims that lack any factual or legal merit.  Court rules at the state and federal levels include provisions specifically designed to deter and address frivolous claims and provide remedies to the parties on the receiving end.

Aggressively Fighting Back Against Frivolous Claims 

Our litigation practice group aggressively avails itself of those rules when a client is served with a meritless complaint, whether in New Jersey and New York state courts or in federal court. If we believe a suit was filed in bad faith, in violation of an attorney’s ethical obligations, or for improper purposes, we take all steps required to ensure that sanctions against the offending litigant and their attorneys can be sought to make our client whole.  We have a solid track record of success fighting back against frivolous litigation, which, as noted, is all too easy to pursue, at least initially.

There is an important distinction, however, between a frivolous claim and a weak one. In every lawsuit that goes to trial, one party will prevail, and one party will lose. Just as the two contestants who lose on each episode of “Jeopardy!” can hardly be called dumb, a claim or defense will not automatically be deemed meritless simply because it was unsuccessful. To be considered frivolous, it must meet the definition of that term in the applicable court rule.

New Jersey’s Frivolous Litigation Act

New Jersey’s Frivolous Litigation Act (FCA) and Rule 1:4-8 of the state’s Rules of Court are prime tools that empower legal counsel and the courts to address meritless lawsuits and claims.

The FCA provides that a party who prevails in a civil action, either as plaintiff or defendant, may be awarded all of its reasonable litigation costs and attorney fees if the judge finds that a complaint, counterclaim, cross-claim, or defense of the non-prevailing person was frivolous.

For a claim or defense to be considered “frivolous” such that the filing party can be held liable for the other party’s attorneys’ fees and costs, the judge must find that:

  • The complaint, counterclaim, cross-claim, or defense was commenced, used, or continued in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, delay, or malicious injury; or
  • The non-prevailing party knew or should have known that the complaint, counterclaim, cross-claim, or defense was without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.


Holding Attorneys Accountable

As “officers of the court,” attorneys have legal and ethical obligations to the judicial process.  The rules that codify these obligations and the potential penalties for violating them are designed to ensure attorneys have “skin in the game” when they file a lawsuit.

Under Rule 1:4-8 of New Jersey’s Rules of Court, an attorney must ensure, based on their reasonable investigation, that any papers they sign and submit to the court have a plausible basis in fact and law and are not being presented for an improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.

When an attorney violates this obligation, a court can hold them accountable by imposing monetary penalties and other professional sanctions directly on them and their law firm.

New York Remedies For Meritless Lawsuits

New Jersey’s definition of frivolous litigation and the penalties a court can impose on parties and attorneys are similar to those detailed in Section 130-1.1 of New York’s court rules.

As is the case in New Jersey, a New York judge can make an award of costs or impose financial sanctions against an attorney and/or a party upon the motion of one of the parties, but can also decide to impose sanctions on its own without any such request. A judge in New York, at their discretion, can sanction an attorney or party for conduct that:

  • is completely without merit in law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law;
  • is undertaken primarily to delay or prolong the resolution of the litigation, or to harass or maliciously injure another; or
  • asserts material factual statements that are false.


Federal Rule 11

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides the mechanism through which litigants in federal court, as well as the court itself, can hold parties and their lawyers accountable for abuses of court processes and the judicial system. If the judge does not entertain the possibility of sanctions on their own, an aggrieved litigant may file a motion for the entry of appropriate sanctions pursuant to Rule 11(c)(2) that describes the specific conduct that allegedly warrants such penalties.

As with its corresponding state court rules, Rule 11 is designed not only to address the misconduct at issue but also to put future litigants on notice that they face the same possible fate for filing frivolous matters. Specifically, the rule provides that sanction imposed “must be limited to what suffices to deter repetition of the conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated.” If imposed upon the motion of an aggrieved litigant and warranted for effective deterrence, sanctions can include directing payment to the movant of part or all of their reasonable attorney’s fees and other expenses directly resulting from the violation.

No matter the forum, a frivolous claim or lawsuit is a scourge upon the civil justice system that has real, tangible, and harmful impacts on the parties that must respond to such filings.  Accordingly, we do not hesitate to put opposing parties on notice of frivolous claims and pursue all available remedies on behalf of clients needlessly drawn into a bogus lawsuit.

If you believe you or your business are the target of a frivolous lawsuit, please contact Ansell.Law Litigation Partner Seth M. Rosenstein