Fee waiver law would curb frivolous lawsuits

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this paragraph

A Gales Ferry man who once worked in the clerk's office in New London Superior Court is proposing a law that he says would make people whose court fees are routinely waived think twice about filing frivolous lawsuits.

Wyatt W. Kopp thinks the state could save millions of dollars if it requires people seeking monetary damages in civil lawsuits to perform community service if they cannot afford the $300 filing fees. He also proposes that litigants reimburse the court if they win money in their cases.

State Rep. Timothy Bowles, D-42nd District, said he supports the concept and last week submitted Kopp's proposed bill into the legislative "pipeline."

The bill provides "an out" that allows a judge to waive the community service requirement if the court determines the person can't perform community service.

Currently, when a judge grants a fee waiver, the state still pays state marshals $40 to serve the lawsuits to each person being sued, Kopp said. And if the indigent person requests a copy of a court transcript, the state pays the $2-per-page production costs.

Kopp, a law school graduate who is currently unemployed, describes himself as a conservative. He worked as a temporary employee in the civil clerk's office at the courthouse on Huntington Street from May 2009 to August 2010.

"I saw a lot of people filing multiple suits on fee waivers," Kopp said. "I thought to myself, these guys have better access to the court system than I do. I can't file multiple suits against multiple defendants. I couldn't file multiple appeals and go into multiple forums."

Statewide, the courts waived about $8.6 million in fees during each of the last three fiscal years, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. But it is hard to quantify how much Kopp's proposal would save the state, since the figures include waivers granted for a wide range of civil, family and criminal matters.

Under federal law, the courts must waive fees for anyone who applies for a restraining order in a domestic situation, regardless of income. Criminal judges frequently order community service in lieu of fees for prisoners and others who say they are indigent.

Judicial officials last year proposed requiring judges to review cases that come with fee waiver applications to determine if they are frivolous. Deborah J. Fuller, the branch's director of legislative affairs, testified at a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee that the federal court uses a similar method.

"It is important to note that this provision would not infringe on an indigent person's access to the courts, as it would not bar fee waivers for colorable claims," Fuller testified. "It is also important to note that under current law, there is no financial disincentive for a person to bring a frivolous lawsuit if court fees and costs are waived."

The bill died in committee. It was later added to another bill but faced opposition and did not pass.

In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, Kopp cited the cases of several Connecticut residents who he said have abused the legal system as a result of unchecked fee waivers.

In New Britain Superior Court, a woman received fee waivers in 78 civil cases, totaling $23,400, and for an additional 44 appeals at $250 per case, according to Kopp. The lawsuits involved nearly 200 defendants, Kopp said.

A man in Hartford Superior Court had a total of $10,970 in fees and costs waived in 27 civil cases involving 78 defendants, according to Kopp.

"These people will literally sue you at the drop of a hat because they have every incentive and encouragement from the state to file these suits," Kopp said.

Locally, Kopp cited the case of Sylvester Traylor of Quaker Hill, who waged a protracted legal battle against his wife's psychiatrist, Waterford police and several other parties after Roberta Mae Traylor committed suicide in 2004.

Traylor, who said he has health problems and is unemployed, routinely receives fee waivers. Kopp estimated Traylor's litigation has cost the Connecticut $5,300 in waived costs and notes that Traylor has also received fee waivers in several federal cases.

Traylor, reached by phone, said Kopp's proposal is discriminatory.

"It won't even get out of committee," Traylor said. "It's discriminatory against poor people."

Traylor's medical malpractice lawsuit and appeals, mostly self-authored, have been dismissed at the state and federal levels. Traylor has also brought several racial discrimination and defamation cases and has complained to Judicial Branch officials about his treatment by New London Superior Court staff and judges.

In July 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed one of Traylor's filings and warned him that "the continued filing of duplicative, vexatious, or frivolous appeals, mandamus petitions or motions may result in sanctions, including a leave-to-file sanction requiring Traylor to obtain permission from this Court prior to filing further submissions in this Court."

In a November 2012 order dismissing a case Traylor brought against 12 state legislators, court officials and an insurance company, Hartford Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schumann wrote that Traylor's "litigious ferver is perhaps understandable, but it has clearly reached the point of becoming unnecessarily costly, wasteful and fruitless."

Traylor has pending motions for reconsideration in U.S. District Court.

In a phone interview, Traylor suggested that Kopp's fee waiver proposal was retaliatory, since Traylor had filed a complaint against Kopp while Kopp was working at the clerk's office. Traylor suggested also that his November 2009 complaint against Kopp was responsible for Kopp being fired in August 2010.

Kopp said he was asked to resign or be fired from the clerk's office after being told he was "not a good fit" for the job. Pursuant to a Freedom of Information request for Kopp's letter of termination, the Judicial Branch provided a letter that says Kopp was terminated "due to issues with his work product, timeliness and follow-through with tasks."

Kopp later went to work for a Groton law firm and was laid off.

Editor's note: Comments have been turned off on this story due to the excessive number that violated The Day's commenting policy.

k.florin@theday.com

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