No matter how absurd a lawsuit is, the plaintiff usually has an elaborate, ingenuous theory to explain why he deserves to be compensated for injuries caused in some convoluted, indirect way by the nefarious defendant, and the obligatory disclaimer about the case “not being about the money” is usually tacked on. Usually. And then there’s James Schlimpert, president of Oklahoma-based Garage Storage Cabinets LLC.
When asked why he brought a suit against a competitor (Don Mitchell/MGCS) for misappropriation of trade secrets and tortious interference with his company’s dealer contracts, he explained, forthrightly:
When deposed, GSC President John Schlimpert testified that his company held no trade secrets, had no exclusive dealer contracts, and had filed the lawsuit for the sole purpose of putting MGCS out of business.
“I am amazed in some respects that the plaintiff said that, and he said it more than once, said his purpose was to put them out of business,” reads the court record issued by the District Court of Payne County, Honorable Larry Brooks, judge. “I think, under the plaintiff’s stated purpose, he was bringing it just to be vexatious to the defendants. I think it’s vexatious litigation.”
Wow. Still, for anybody who wasn’t already convinced by the Roy Pearson case, the history of the suit illustrates the difficulty courts have in protecting defendants from frivolous suits.
Because the complaint, on its face, seemingly stated legitimate causes of action, the only way for Mitchell to establish that the suit was frivolous was to conduct discovery and take the deposition of the plaintiff. Then Mitchell had to get lucky; if Schlimpert hadn’t foolishly admitted the fraudulent nature of his suit, the court would almost certainly treated the suit as legitimate. (Mitchell could still have won, but wouldn’t have gotten sanctions.) Once Mitchell got lucky, he had to make a motion to the court to have the case thrown out.
Then, after having the case thrown out, Mitchell had to make a separate application to the court for sanctions — he actually botched this procedure, but the court let the issue slide — and then had to participate in a hearing to try to establish how much those sanctions should be. All of that cost more money, more attorneys fees, with no guarantee that these costs would be recouped. Indeed, in this case Mitchell asked for $49,300, and the judge awarded only $31,500, because Schlimpert was successful in finding an expert witness to convince the judge that the lower number should have been sufficient to beat his frivolous case.
Moreover, the judge refused to penalize the plaintiff’s lawyer, finding that just because Schlimpert was acting in bad faith didn’t mean his lawyer was.
And then, after all that, Schlimpert appealed. Finally, this month, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision. And now Mitchell has to go back to the trial court, after having spent another $8,000 on the appeal, and has to hope the judge will make him whole.
P.S. In case you were wondering: this suit was filed in May 2003. It took 17 months from the time the suit was filed until the time the judge ruled in favor of Mitchell. It took another 17 months for the judge to award sanctions to Mitchell. After Schlimpert appealed, it took yet another 17 months for the appeals court to rule. In other words, more than four years elapsed. But — as mentioned — it’s still not over, because now Mitchell has to return to the trial court, to be awarded fees because of Schlimpert’s appeal.