On Monday, December 4, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation District. The case partially resolved a long-running dispute regarding the validity of fees the United Water Conservation District charges all groundwater pumpers in its jurisdiction. While this case has been followed most closely in the community of water-rate nerds (myself included), there are broader impacts on government revenue and constitutional interpretation in general.
Eventually, it happens to us all. Somehow or other, we end up in court facing a vexatious litigant—a person who, acting in pro per, repeatedly pursues meritless law suits or frivolous pleadings, motions, and discovery. Ordinarily, this happens when a vexatious litigant sues, and we attorneys spend incredible (if unavoidable) amounts of time and money trying to extricate our clients from the fray.
California’s statutes, however, exist to reduce this risk to the unwary public, creating procedural obstacles to the filing of meritless litigation by individuals found to be vexatious litigants. (See Code Civ. Proc., §§ 391-391.7.) Once a person has been declared a vexatious litigant, he or she cannot file a new lawsuit in pro per in a California court without getting prior approval from the presiding judge or justice. (See Shalant v. Girardi (2011) 51 Cal.4th 1164, 1169-1170.) The same pre-filing requirements apply when a vexatious litigant attempts to appeal in pro per from an adverse judgment in a case in which he or she was the plaintiff. (See Mahdavi v. Superior Court (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 32, 41.)
In federal court, partial dismissals present plaintiffs with a difficult choice. They can seek an immediate appeal or continue litigating their live claims. But they cannot do both, though they are often motivated to do so. And defendants should be prepared to hold plaintiffs to that choice—as the Ninth Circuit indicated it was willing to do in comments during a recent oral argument.