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Stokes v. First American Title Company of Montana, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

November 7, 2017

JOHN P. STOKES and PAMELA J. STOKES, Petitioners and Appellants,
FIRST AMERICAN TITLE COMPANY OF MONTANA, INC., a Montana Corporation; and U.S. BANK TRUST, N.A., as Trustee for LSF8 MASTER PARTICIPATION TRUST, Respondents and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 13, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twentieth Judicial District, In and For the County of Lake, Cause No. DV 14-223 Honorable James A. Manley, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants: John Patrick Stokes, Pamela Jeanne Stokes, self-represented; Bigfork, Montana.

          For Appellees: Michael J. Lilly, Berg, Lilly & Tollefsen P.C.; Bozeman, Montana.

          Danielle A.R. Coffman, Crowley Fleck PLLP; Kalispell, Montana.


          JIM RICE JUDGE

         ¶1 While the appeal in this matter was pending, Appellees First American Title Company and U.S. Bank Trust, N.A. (Appellees) filed a joint motion requesting an order declaring Appellant John P. Stokes (Stokes) to be a vexatious litigant and requiring either anything he files be pre-approved by the district court or, alternatively, certified by a licensed Montana lawyer in good standing as meritorious under M. R. Civ. P. 11.

         ¶2 In the appeal, John and Pamela Stokes (Mr. and Mrs. Stokes) challenged an order that had been entered by the Twentieth Judicial District Court, Lake County, Honorable James Manley presiding, which dismissed their lawsuit against the Appellees. We affirmed the District Court's dismissal order in a memorandum opinion, issued in conjunction herewith. Stokes v. First American Title Co., 2017 MT 274N, DA 17-0161. Mr. and Mrs. Stokes were initially represented by counsel, who withdrew early in the case.

         ¶3 Article II, Section 16 of the Montana Constitution guarantees every person access to the courts of Montana: "Courts of justice shall be open to every person, and speedy remedy afforded for every injury of person, property, or character . . . Right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, or delay." However, the right to access Montana's legal system is not absolute, and may be limited with the showing of a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. Peterson v. Great Falls Sch. Dist. No. 1 & A, 237 Mont. 376, 380, 773 P.2d 316, 318 (1989) (collecting cases).

         ¶4 The Rules of Appellate Procedure provide that litigants can be sanctioned for frivolous or vexatious litigation conduct:

The supreme court may, on a motion to dismiss, a request included in a brief, or sua sponte, award sanctions to the prevailing party in an appeal, cross-appeal, or a motion or petition for relief determined to be frivolous, vexatious, filed for purposes of harassment or delay, or taken without substantial or reasonable grounds. Sanctions may include costs, attorney fees, or such other monetary or non-monetary penalty as the supreme court deems proper under the circumstances.

M. R. App. P. 19(5). We have previously cited Rule 19 in the imposition of pre-filing orders for vexatious litigants. See, e.g., Hartsoe v. Tucker, 2013 MT 256, ¶¶ 14-18, 371 Mont. 539, 309 P.3d 39. Montana does not have a statute specifically authorizing the imposition of restrictions upon vexatious litigants, but our common law includes such authority.[1] Motta v. Granite Cty. Comm'rs, 2013 MT 172, ¶¶ 19-23, 370 Mont. 469, 304 P.3d 720. In Motta, we cited a five-factor test utilized by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal to determine whether a pre-filing order is justified: (1) the litigant's history of litigation and, in particular, whether it has entailed vexatious, harassing, or duplicative lawsuits; (2) the litigant's motive in pursuing the litigation; e.g., whether the litigant has an objective good faith expectation of prevailing; (3) whether the litigant is represented by counsel; (4) whether the litigant has caused needless expense to other parties or has posed an unnecessary burden on the courts and their personnel; and (5) whether other sanctions would be adequate to protect the courts and other parties. Motta, ¶ 20 (citing Molski v. Evergreen Dynasty Corp., 500 F.3d 1047, 1058 (9th Cir. 2007)).[2]

         ¶5 Under the first factor, Stokes' history of litigation in the district courts is significant and has entailed vexatious, harassing, or duplicative lawsuits.[3] Stokes has been before this Court ten times.[4] In several of these cases, Stokes was represented by counsel, and there was no assertion that the appeals had been taken unreasonably. However, Stokes' pro se appeals have repeatedly been found to be insufficiently presented, including a failure to provide a sufficient record or a failure to raise cognizable arguments, and have usually been affirmed in a memorandum opinion based upon the failure to meet the appellant's burden. In this matter, we conclude that Mr. and Mrs. Stokes' appeal was taken without substantial or reasonable grounds. As noted in our memorandum opinion, their briefing lacked citations to the record, citations to authority, and cognizable legal argument.

         ¶6 Further, the briefing asserted numerous serious and unsupported accusations against party opponents, judges, and officials. With no citation to the record, Mr. and Mrs. Stokes alleged fraud, fabrication, collusion, harassment, and intimidation by their bankruptcy trustees; bias and prejudice by Judge Manley; and that Appellees were a "scam enterprise and laundering front for the Drug Cartel . . . ." The brief also stated that John Stokes personally removed a majority of the judges in Flathead County and implied a threat to ...

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