The Republican-led House on Friday backed legislation that requires judges to sanction attorneys and other parties who file frivolous lawsuits in federal district court, a move that supporters said will protect individuals and businesses from unnecessary legal costs.
The bill doesn’t change the standard that federal judges use to determine whether a lawsuit is frivolous, but it would ensure penalties for those who file such suits. A key provision of the bill eliminates a party’s ability to avoid sanctions by voluntarily withdrawing claims within 21 days.
The vote was 230-188.
In a business-friendly campaign, House Republicans are pushing through several bills designed to overhaul the legal system, but those efforts face a harder time in the Senate, where legislation generally needs support from 60 senators to proceed.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argued that his bill would prevent the filing of thousands of frivolous lawsuits.
“These absurd lawsuits cost many innocent families their savings and often ruin their reputations,” Smith said.
The American Bar Association opposed Smith’s bill. It said that anecdotal examples of frivolous lawsuits are not backed by research that would demonstrate any increase in such filings. The ABA says that many of the anecdotes relied on by supporters actually stemmed from cases brought in state courts and would not be affected by the legislation.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said that the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education declaring separate but equal educational facilities for racial minorities inherently unequal might never have occurred if the requirements of Smith’s bill were in place in the 1950s. He said that’s because the legal arguments in the case were novel and not based on existing law.
Conyers also said that the bill would strip the judiciary of its discretion and independence.
“The bill will chill legitimate civil-rights litigation,” he said.
Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the House vote.
“When this bill becomes law, it will hold plaintiffs’ lawyers accountable for filing frivolous claims so they cannot simply withdraw a lawsuit without consequence, resulting in fewer bogus lawsuits,” said Lisa A. Rickard, president of the chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.
The vote followed House passage of a bill Thursday evening that would add hurdles to filing a class-action lawsuit in federal court.
That bill would require individuals seeking to participate to show that they suffered the same type and magnitude of personal injury or economic loss as the group’s leader. Also, attorneys in successful class-action suits couldn’t collect payment until after the individuals in the class are paid.