The News On 6 Investigates: Frivolous Lawsuits

Wednesday, February 13th 2008, 6:16 pm
By: News On 6

The State of Oklahoma is currently holding almost 25,000 prison inmates.  Most of them are just trying to pay their debt to society.  But, some prisoners are costing you more than just room and board, by filing frivolous or even malicious lawsuits.  In a News On 6 Investigation anchor Terry Hood reveals how some inmates are taking advantage of the legal system and how you're paying for it.

Prison may limit a man's freedom, but it doesn't necessarily limit his creativity.

"We had an inmate sue that said the food wasn't any good and he wasn't getting enough of it," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.  "An inmate in prison for cruelty to animals who sued to get his horses back.  We had an inmate that sued because he was issued Converse tennis shoes instead of Nike pump-ups."

One Oklahoma inmate even sued the Department of Corrections for the right to smoke pot.

"He had a theory that marijuana could be used as a sacrament of the Holy American Church, which he founded and was the pope of," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

They may sound funny, but the attorneys who have to fight them aren't laughing.  The job of defending the state against lawsuits filed by prisoners belongs to the Attorney General's Office.

"We've got to pay attention.  We can't miss deadlines.  We've got to do the work.  And, we've got to do it well," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

Right now the state is fighting 1,100 lawsuits, including hundreds filed by inmates.  The attorney general says it's impossible to quantify how much the work is costing the state, but three of his attorneys are doing that work full-time.

Missing a deadline or filing a sloppy brief, in even the most off-the-wall case, could cost taxpayers thousands, maybe even millions more.

"You do have to look at them carefully.  You have to treat every one of them very seriously, but a lot of them, it turns out, should never have been filed or we should never have been named," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

The Oklahoma Legislature tried to help.

In 2001, it changed the law to make it tougher for inmates to file lawsuits.  Prisoners now have to take their beefs to their individual prisons, before filing a suit.  If they don't, they end up on the state's new registry of frivolous or malicious lawsuits.

"Who defines frivolous?" asks prison inmate John Mahorney.

He's doing time at the Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, Oklahoma.  Mahorney, inmate number 250-422, is serving a sentence of life without parole for a first degree murder conviction.  He is also the worst offender on the Oklahoma Registry of Frivolous or Malicious Appeals.

"They don't want to read junk.  You gotta make it short and sweet and get into the point and get out of it," said prisoner John Mahorney.

Mahorney says he knows how to write a good lawsuit.  He's had lots of practice, since he's filed 70 or 80 over the years.

He sued for the right to smoke.

He sued for the right to file his lawsuits for free and won by having the courts declare him indigent.

He even sued the woman who runs the prison's law library, because she won't let him type lawsuits for other inmates.

"Part of my responsibilities are to keep other inmates from extorting each other for legal services, so part of that was not allowing just any inmate to type for another inmate," said Becky Guffy, Crabtree Correctional Center Law Library Director.

John Mahorney, a lifer who will never be eligible for parole, has also sued the Oklahoma Department of Corrections over his heart medication.

"They won't pay for my medical, and if I ever get out, I might have a bad credit rating.  They should have already paid these bills.  Now, it's an issue that I've got to go pursue to make them pay the bill," said prisoner John Mahorney.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson says the new law has helped.  But, prison officials say it's taught inmates like Mahorney to be more creative.  They say judges can help by quickly weeding out frivolous or malicious lawsuits.  And, they say some of the responsibility lies with the Department of Corrections.

"DOC's been around for a long time and we have a policy for just about everything.  And, as long as we are following our policies and doing our jobs, there really isn't a reason to sue," said Becky Guffy, Crabtree Correctional Center Law Library Director.

There's no way to eliminate all frivolous lawsuits.  Under the First Amendment, every inmate has a right to petition the courts.  Besides, you never know when some prisoner may come up with a legal argument that sets a precedent.

"Some of the landmark civil rights cases in the area of criminal law were filed by inmates without a lawyer at the time they filed the lawsuit," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

But one convicted murderer and jailhouse lawyer says he knows an easy way to end frivolous lawsuits, with one minor catch.

"If they'd just give us what we have coming, there would never be any lawsuits filed," said prisoner John Mahorney.

Ending up on the Oklahoma Registry of Frivolous or Malicious Appeals can be unpleasant for an inmate.  It allows a judge to punish him by taking away some of his privileges or even personal items, including books and televisions.

Even so, those lawsuits are still coming and still costing you money.