Legally Speaking: An Embarrassment of Riches

John G. Browning Nov. 11, 2010, 9:00am

Most of us would love to be acknowledged as No. 1 at something or as a world record holder.

At Rockwall's recent "Rib 'N Run" rib cookoff in the downtown square, I was sure the first place trophy would go to one of my colleagues from the Rockwall Bar Association.

There was G. David Smith and his "Illegal Tender" smoked ribs, as well as Troy Reimer and his "Supreme Pork." Both of these law-themed offerings were delicious, but – alas – the event judges disagreed with my tastebuds and proclaimed someone else's ribs best in show.

Jonathan Lee Riches, however, seems to court notoriety even while insisting that he doesn't want it. The 33-year-old Riches, an inmate at a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., has filed more than 3,800 lawsuits in virtually every jurisdiction in the country.

He sued the Guinness Book of World Records, claiming that he wanted to prevent them from pronouncing him the most litigious man in America. In the suit, Riches said "I've filed so many lawsuits with my pen and right hand that I got arthritis in my fingers, numbness in my wrists, crooked fingers, I got bags under my eyes from sleepless nights suing the world."

Riches maintained that despite all the lawsuits, being called names like "the Patrick Ewing of Suing" and "Johnny Sue-Nami" hurt his feelings.

Of course, the Guinness people were a little surprised by the lawsuit, especially since they don't keep records on litigious people and have no plans to include Riches in any upcoming edition. Riches' lawsuit against Guinness was dismissed.

The Guinness folks are in good company. Since 2006, Riches has sued "Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party," the Greek philosopher Plato, the celestial body once known as the planet Pluto, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, former President George W. Bush, then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, and even the Somali prates.

Usually he files his own new lawsuits (writing as many as four petitions a day), but sometimes he tries to join an existing lawsuit – like when he joined former "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell in suing the Yoga Journal.

He recently tried to intervene in the bankruptcy case involving Bernard Madoff's investment firm, claiming that Madoff was his pen pal (they supposedly met on, according to Riches) and had defrauded him, his siblings, his neighbors, and even his pets.

Riches wrote that Madoff's wife Ruth was "profiting off my fame by making Jonathan Lee Riches T-shirts, hats, and mugs and selling them in Time Square New York." You guessed it – the judge threw that lawsuit out, too.

Sometimes, Riches seeks money, as when he sought damages from President Bush, his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and unidentified "Telephone Freakers," all of whom he claimed had formed an alliance with al-Qaeda in order to "hack into" Riches' mind.

Riches claimed that those individuals had "snuck into this prison and cloned my brain." In other lawsuits, Riches seeks an injunction to halt alleged (and often physically unlikely) activity.

He once sued the Bonnaroo Music Festival, the Dave Matthews Band and Stevie Wonder in an attempt to stop the Tennessee event because he found the music offensive.

Nor surprisingly, the lawsuits filed by the "Lawsuit Zeus," as Riches likes to call himself, are routinely dismissed by federal judges as frivolous. But some courts have gone further. In August 2008, U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawcett of Orlando, Fla., entered an order declaring Riches to be a vexatious litigant and barring him from any more filings in her jurisdiction.

In an opinion joined by four other judges, she noted that his filings "waste court employees' time and interfere with the rights of honest people with legitimate grievances."

And in September, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky sought an injunction keeping Riches from filing documents in any court unless a federal judge first makes a determination "that the documents have some legitimate basis in fact and law."

Under the prosecutor's proposed order, Riches' mail would be screened in prison and documents flagged as "fraudulent, malicious, or without basis in fact or law" would be returned to him. Any legal mail found to be legitimate would be forwarded on to the appropriate court.

The 33-year-old inmate, who's been incarcerated for nearly 10 years after pleading guilty in Texas to using AOL e-mail to defraud credit card users by scamming their card numbers, will have to find a new way to pass the time.

He's scheduled for release in March 2012.

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