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
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
Appellants: John Patrick Stokes, Pamela Jeanne Stokes,
self-represented; Bigfork, Montana.
Appellees: Michael J. Lilly, Berg, Lilly & Tollefsen
P.C.; Bozeman, Montana.
Danielle A.R. Coffman, Crowley Fleck PLLP; Kalispell,
OPINION AND ORDER
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.
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.
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).
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
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. 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
Under the first factor, Stokes' history of litigation in
the district courts is significant and has entailed
vexatious, harassing, or duplicative lawsuits. Stokes has been
before this Court ten times. 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
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 ...