Judge Posner Sets Out to Clean Up Frivolousness

30 July 2015 Wisconsin Appellate Law Blog

Nate Carter probably wasn’t expecting this.

Mr. Carter had lost his home to a mortgage foreclosure. So seemingly out of blind rage—or at least the sort of anger that when coupled with ignorance leads one to do illogical things—he brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the responsible financial institutions didn’t hold his note or the associated mortgage and thus had violated his rights under the federal Constitution. The merits of what he complained about weren’t exactly clear to the legal, critically thinking mind, and, in any event, nothing about his suit even remotely suggested that it belonged in federal court. The district court dismissed it as frivolous.

Ordinarily decisions on appeal from this sort of case don’t make their way into the venerable pages of the federal reporter. The Seventh Circuit’s Circuit Rule 32.1(a) flatly states that “[i]t is the policy of the circuit to avoid issuing unnecessary opinions.” On the surface there wasn’t anything noteworthy, much less interesting, about Mr. Carter’s appeal.

But Judge Posner thought differently, and he took the opportunity not only to write Carter v. Homeward Residential, Inc., No. 15-1156 (7th Cir. July 23, 2015), but to call on the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in Hagans v. Levine, 415 U.S. 528 (1974).

For those unfamiliar with the principle in Hagans, it is that cases that lack any merit whatsoever should be dismissed without prejudice and those that only turn out to lack any merit after further investigation should be dismissed with prejudice. The reason for the difference is that the former never even invoke federal jurisdiction, whereas the latter do, before meeting their ultimate demise. A presumption favors dismissing on the merits, lest all this lead to a court’s “spend[ing] too much time distinguishing degrees of weakness.” Slip op. 3.

The problem, as Judge Posner described it, is that the case law (Hagans is a prime culprit) has turned all this into a verbal morass. Cases that ought to be dismissed without prejudice (i.e., the complete losers) have been described by courts as “utterly frivolous,” “wholly insubstantial,” “plainly unsubstantial,” or “essentially fictitious”—to name only a few. That leaves the impression that cases that ought to be dismissed with prejudice (i.e., the not-quite-complete losers) are merely “frivolous,” “substantial,” or, as one court put it, “sufficiently substantial.”

“How indeed,” Judge Posner wondered, “would one distinguish ‘frivolous’ from ‘utterly frivolous’? . . . The bare word ‘frivolous’ should be enough.’ . . . No one has explained how that point [i.e., the point at which a case moves from being “utterly frivolous” to being merely “frivolous”] is to be determined. It remains indeterminate, a source of needless uncertainty.” Slip op. 4-5.

So the upshot to this point in Carter is that we should purge all these unnecessary adverbs and puffy verbiage from the case law. (Judge Posner observed that Hagans introduced “obviously frivolous,” “so attenuated and unsubstantial as to be absolutely devoid of merit,” “no longer open to discussion,” “essentially fictitious,” “plainly unsubstantial,” and other ridiculous phrases to make a bad situation worse.)

But Judge Posner has taken aim in Carter at “frivolous” too—“a word,” as he put it, “that in modern American English is synonymous with such words as ‘skittish,’ ‘flighty,’ ‘giddy,’ ‘silly,’ ‘foolish,’ ‘superficial,’ ‘shallow,’ ‘irresponsible,’ ‘thoughtless,’ ‘featherbrained,’ ‘empty-headed,’ ‘pea-brained,’ ‘birdbrained,’ ‘vacuous,’ and ‘vapid’”—hoping to strike it from the legal lexicon. It would be better in his view to say that a complaint that doesn’t invoke federal jurisdiction (again, the complete loser) is “nonjusticiable” and that a claim that invokes federal jurisdiction but pleads itself out of court (the not-quite-complete loser) is “groundless.” Enough with all the other nonsense.

Judge Posner ended Carter by affirming the district court’s dismissal and calling on the Supreme Court to “reexamine its 41-year-old decision in Hagans.” We’ll see if the justices are listening.

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