Paying for frivolous' lawsuits
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
April 14, 2004
Here's something that happened in another part of the Lauderdale County Courthouse last week, while I was covering the murder trial of Joseph Osborne.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Larry Roberts dismissed a $2.5 million lawsuit against Chancery Judge Sarah Springer, Sheriff Billy Sollie, jail administrator Doris Callahan and the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors.
The lawsuit was filed in late December 2003 by Bobby Serton.
It's a very long story, and Serton had filed a lawsuit a lot like it in another court which is part of the reason it was dismissed and most of the reason he was sanctioned with fines.
In brief, Serton's complaint arose out of his 1999 divorce and incarceration, for contempt of court, for failure to pay child support.
Serton appealed and won in part.
The Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld Springer on the divorce decree. But, its mandate, dated June 27, 2002, also instructed the chancery court to do two things: 1) release Serton from jail; and 2) conduct a new hearing on the subject of back child support.
The problem, the COA said, was that court officials could not prove Serton had ever been "served with process" or officially notified of the hearing that led to the contempt charge against him.
But, it was not until August 2002 that Serton was released and that's part of what made him angry enough to file one lawsuit too many.
During a hearing in late March 2004, the county's attorney said if it were true that Serton had been held past June 2002 and he didn't admit that it was it would have been because of unrelated contempt charges.
Now, you would think if you had held a man in jail for more than two years on a charge the Court of Appeals threw out, you could give him credit for "time served," schedule a new hearing and order his release … but I digress.
History of litigation
In addition to his appeal to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, Serton had also filed a federal lawsuit against Judge Springer in U.S. District Court.
It was based on many of the same events.
That complaint was dismissed in July 2001 by U.S. District Judge Tom Lee. Serton appealed that decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Lee's ruling. He filed a motion for rehearing with the 5th Circuit, which was denied.
In December 2003, Serton decided to file in Lauderdale County Circuit Court.
This most recent complaint largely duplicated the U.S. District Court lawsuit and it was one too many. Judge Roberts dismissed the complaint and sanctioned him for filing a "frivolous lawsuit."
The judge ordered Serton to pay $1,450 to the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors for attorney's fees and expenses, and $850 to the Mississippi Tort Claims Fund for legal expenses incurred by Judge Springer.
By law, a person can't go on and on about the same complaint, filing it in one court after another until he gets an answer he likes.
Judge Springer's attorney, Deidra Bassi of Laurel, had presented an array of additional defenses during Serton's latest hearing in Meridian, including lack of notice and statute of limitations problems.
Most importantly, however, Bassi said Judge Springer has judicial immunity for actions taken in the scope of her official duties. This is the same issue the U.S. District Court cited when it dismissed Serton's 2001 lawsuit:
Serton had no lawyer during his hearing before Judge Roberts.
He said he was confused and depressed, but thought he was represented by Christopher McClurg, an attorney from Atlanta. But, McClurg's name does not appear as attorney of record on Serton's December 2003 lawsuit.
Serton said he doesn't have the money for the fines but he is paying the back child support.
Good, good, good.