Legally Speaking: Go Sue Yourself

John G. Browning Jun. 28, 2011, 4:51am

A few years back, I remember chuckling at a Dilbert cartoon that featured the hapless office worker complaining to his company's in-house lawyer about some mistake the attorney had made. "I could sue myself," the lawyer lamely explained, "but if we take it all the way to trial, I'll probably lose."

As odd as it may sound, there have been a number of cases in which red-faced litigants realized that they were, in fact, suing themselves. There have even been judges who have convicted themselves.

In early 19th Century England, for example, Judge William Ettrick of Sunderland fined a farmer for taking a cart to market without his name on it. When the farmer pointed out that the judge's own dung cart was sitting outside the courts building without any name on it, the embarrassed (but honest) Judge Ettrick levied the same fine on himself.

"Auto-litigating," as it were, is alive and well in the U.S. Sometimes it's intentional, albeit strange.

In the 1985 California case of Lodi v. Lodi, plaintiff Oreste Lodi sued himself in Shasta County Superior Court (the record is silent as to why, but the appellate court speculated that Mr. Lodi did this as part of a cockeyed scheme to get a judgment that he could somehow use for tax reasons). Lodi even served himself (hey, no point in evading a process server when it's yourself), and then he took a default judgment against himself when Lodi failed to answer his own lawsuit.

When the trial judge dismissed Lodi's case (perhaps thinking he had wandered into a "Monty Python" sketch in progress), Lodi appealed the dismissal. That, naturally, meant that Lodi was both the appellant and the respondent — and Mr. Lodi actually filed a brief for each side!

Alas, he got no relief from the appellate court, which affirmed the dismissal — reasoning that a cause of action requires both a plaintiff and a defendant who, logically, have to be two different people. Softening the blow somewhat, the court noted that since Mr. Lodi was both the winner and the loser, "It is hard to imagine a more even-handed application of justice."

Although the court could have had loser-Lodi bear the costs of winner-Lodi's appeal, it magnanimously held that "the equities are better served by requiring each party to bear his own costs."

Fear not, Mr. Lodi, we have some lovely parting gifts for you, including a DVD of the movie "Sybil" and a CD of the Billy Idol song, "Dancing With Myself."

Maybe there's just something about the name Lodi. In 2006, Curtis Gokey of Lodi, Calif., filed a claim against the city for damage to his vehicle caused by one of the city's dump trucks backing into it. While this might seem straightforward enough, consider one more fact: the dump truck was being operated by none other than city employee Curtis Gokey!

Gokey admitted that the accident was his fault. The city of Lodi, however, denied the claim, saying that since Gokey's own negligence caused the damage, he was in effect filing a claim against himself.

That's better reasoning than the city of Islington, England, used in a 2007 case. An Islington parking and traffic control officer ticketed what turned out to be a city vehicle.

That city department appealed the ticket to the city council; since the department and the city are the same legal entity, it essentially amounted to the city council appealing the ticket to the city council—hearing its own appeal, in other words.

The council rejected its own appeal, but the ticket was then taken up to a higher level, to a different official known as the Parking & Traffic Adjudicator (British traffic laws are rather convoluted, to say the least). At this stage of appeal, though, the city presented no evidence, and the Adjudicator voided the ticket.

Evidently feeling the appeal had been a waste of time, the city asked for costs against itself (which can be awarded under British law when a party's behavior has been "frivolous, vexatious, or wholly unreasonable"). Before the situation could descend further into the bizarre by having the city of Islington pay itself, a cooler head prevailed, in the form of the Adjudicator. He declined to award costs, noting the patently obvious— "The legal status of the two parties in this appeal amounted to one and the same."

More often than not, however, the odd episodes of people suing themselves happen because of embarrassing blunders rather than conscious decisions. In 2005, Illinois lawyer Emert Wyss represented homeowner Carmelita McLaughlin in a case against her mortgage holder over illegal fees that she had been charged. She signed a retainer agreement with Wyss and his law firm, who promptly proceeded to file a class action lawsuit against Alliance Mortgage.

But then things got, as Lewis Carroll's Alice might have observed, "curioser and curioser." In discovery, it turned out that the fees had originally been charged by Centerre Title Co., whose owner was—wait for it—Emert Wyss.

That made for some uncomfortable moments when Wyss had to give a deposition and admit that Emert Wyss (as Centerre Title Co.) charged the fees to Ms. McLaughlin, only to suggest months later to his client that she file suit over the very fees his title company had collected from her. Holy conflict of interest, Batman!

Wyss found himself in an even more uncomfortable position when he and Centerre Title Company were added (by court order) to the lawsuit as indispensable parties, thus making him a defendant in the case he himself had filed in the first place. Wyss was later dismissed from the litigation, but not before he had to waive any claim for attorney's fees.

Proving that the home foreclosure crisis could take some strange twists and turns, in 2009 Wells Fargo sued . . .Wells Fargo Bank. The bank, in an effort to clear title on a home so that it could foreclose, hired a Tampa law firm to name and notify all subordinate lienholders. Those other lienholders included the bank holding the second mortgage on the property—Wells Fargo.

As a result, Wells Fargo had to hire a second law firm (this time, to defend it from itself) and filed an answer to the complaint that basically consisted of Wells Fargo (defendant) denying most of the allegations being made by Wells Fargo (plaintiff).

Maybe this is an illustration of the absurdities of the financial crisis at its worst, or maybe it's part of a "crazy like a fox" scheme to provide maximum employment for lawyers—call it the "No Lawyer Left Behind" approach, if you will.

Corporate bumbling has brought other companies to the brink of suing themselves. In 2007, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) took a break from suing children, little old ladies and dead people for allegedly downloading music and turned their attention in another direction: going after websites that were leaking recording artists' music.

Unfortunately for them, that year, the group Nine Inch Nails and its record label Interscope Records decided to build interest in the group's forthcoming album "Year Zero" by intentionally leaking a number of songs to various fan sites. The RIAA apparently didn't get the memo, because they sent cease and desist letters threatening lawsuits against many of the websites that posted these tracks.

That's right, the RIAA (which represents the record labels) threatened to sue fans that Nine Inch Nails and Interscope had courted as part of their marketing campaign, for conduct that the artists and label had signed off on in the first place. Fortunately, before any lawsuits could be filed, someone with functioning brain stem activity dragged the RIAA back from the precipice.

Of course, I've left out the upside of suing yourself. No matter how it turns out, you can always say you won — well, sort of.

More News