My own thoughts on Tyler v. Carter

by Ted Frank on December 25, 2006

Regarding our recent post, David Giacalone takes issue with our “recycling of stale pro se cases.” If I may defend our site:

  • I disagree with Giacalone that these cases are “stale.” The baking soda case was two years old, but it was in blogosphere news because David Lat drew a lot of attention to it. Walter reposted Tyler v. Carter by reader request; we hadn’t mentioned the case before.
  • I disagree with Giacalone that these cases are rare. Opinions may be rare—cases like these tend to get thrown out with minute orders and summarily affirmed on appeal. But I know talking from appellate staff (as opposed to elbow) clerks, that the pro se docket has many such cases, and that the opinions are only the tip of the iceberg. Tax protestors don’t get a lot of attention unless they are Wesley Snipes or the Montana Freemen, but there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of such people in the court system arguing about the legal consequences of capitalization or claiming that wages aren’t income or similar such nonsense.
  • That said, perhaps Giacalone would find agreement with me when I concede that I don’t believe insane pro se complaints to be in anyone’s reasonable top ten list of problems with the American legal system. The system may not deal with these complaints with maximum efficiency, but deals with them effectively enough that the mistakes are relatively small compared to, say, the damage done by modern products liability law or securities class actions.
  • What makes Tyler v. Carter most notable to me today is not so much the wacky allegations, which, as David Nieporent pointed out in the comments, are likely the delusions of an unmedicated schizophrenic. (Ludicrous complaints against famous people are not that unusual: in 2002, a similarly delusional Texas woman alleged that George W. Bush kidnapped, drugged, and raped her; and left-wing conspiracists with their own delusions still repeat the story.) Oh, sure, there’s some entertainment value in those allegations, which is why Tyler v. Carter or Mayo v. Satan & His Servants or the fly-like-Batman case get passed around like samizdat among new law students. But what’s especially notable about Tyler is that it is technically wrong.

    Tyler‘s complaint met the minimal standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8; she paid a filing fee. Under the current federal rules, Rule 12(b)(6) “does not countenance . . . dismissals based on a judge’s disbelief of a complaint’s factual allegations. District judges looking to dismiss claims on such grounds must look elsewhere for legal support.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989). Tyler cites Neitzke, and then refuses to adhere to its command, and dismisses the case sua sponte, without any legal authority to do so other than common sense.

    Now, in the abstract, this is a preferable rule: far better that cases like Tyler get thrown out without the need for a summary judgment proceeding demonstrating that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are not engaged in mind-control or mass sex slavery. But claims only slightly less silly get the full benefit of the legal system: Ashley Pelman is allowed to sue McDonald’s arguing that his obesity is the result of consumer fraud, and Rule 8 permits that plaintiff to conduct expensive discovery. And claims only slightly less silly than that get multiple litigation-lobby defenders writing or law professors teaching why it’s okay to sue and win over spilling coffee on oneself. If Ms. Tyler were represented by an attorney, the Second Circuit would never permit mere common sense to dismiss a complaint outside the rules.

    If pro se plaintiffs were given equal access to the justice system and the full benefit of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that a Pelman gets, there might be some pressure to change the FRCP to give judges the authority to dismiss harassing complaints sua sponte. The rules simply don’t permit Judge Haight to do what he did; but I think we can all agree that Judge Haight should have such power. This might not be a complete solution; after all, the Arm & Hammer judge had the authority to dismiss that in forma pauperis complaint sua sponte and failed to do so. But a change in the rules that recognizes that judges have legitimate power to act as gate-keepers to screen cases would encourage more judges to do so, with benefits that redound far beyond the occasional schizophrenic and bored-prisoner pro se case.

{ 1 comment }

1 markm 12.26.06 at 10:22 am

does every post have to illustrate a flaw in the judicial system? The Pelman complaint was simply laugh-out-loud funny. Then again, if the judge had to break the rules to toss it out, there is indeed a problem. I don’t remember your original post bringing up this point.

I’ve read complaints about insane clients (with the client’s identity heavily disguised) on lawyers’ personal blogs. Ethical lawyers screen out cases like this – but not all of them are ethical enough to refuse to file an insane case for a crazy client with the money to pay by the hour, and obviously many are sufficiently lacking in ethics to file a very poorly founded case in the hope that the defendant will pay them to go away.

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