H.R. 758 has been proposed to prevent frivolous lawsuits by amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to require courts to order the plaintiff to pay any of the defendant’s expenses reasonably caused by the lawsuit. At the moment courts are empowered but not required to impose such sanctions. The bill would also remove text allowing plaintiffs to avoid penalty by withdrawing or correcting lawsuits within 21 days of service of the motion for sanctions.
Why such a partisan response? The controversy behind the Lawsuit Abuse Protection Act comes from a disagreement about the actual effects of the legislation on legal efficiency, as well as the effects on civil rights cases. The bill has received major support from Republicans under the belief that the threat of significant penalties will reduce cases of pointless or harmful lawsuits that waste the court’s time. However Democrats have come out against the law for two reasons. According to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD5), Democrats believe that making sanctions mandatory would lead to more court cases disputing these sanctions; and that the criteria for a “frivolous case” would create an unfair bias against civil rights cases.
How could it impact civil rights cases? The bill would not actually change the criteria for a frivolous lawsuit, but it would make a court response mandatory. Among these criteria is that a lawsuit must be warranted by an existing law or a reasonable case for changing existing law. Democrats argue that civil rights cases are particularly “susceptible to abusive claims of frivolity by defendants” because they often an involve an argument for changing an existing law. So it could be that the bill would discourage civil rights cases from arising for fear of being penalized.
The Vote: The bill passed the House by a partisan vote of 241-185 with 238 Republicans voting in favor and 180 Democrats voting against. It will move on to the Senate. H.R. 758 is the fourth incarnation of this legislation. It passed the House by a similar vote in the previous Congress, but never made it to the Senate.