A look at the impact, implications of hoax federal lawsuits

By Michael Tarm
Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) - Legal experts say bogus lawsuits like two recently filed under the names of suspects in high-profile criminal cases are rare and that prosecutors have options for pursuing charges.

Federal investigators are looking into two hoax lawsuits that were mailed from Pennsylvania in the last month. One lists the plaintiff as the former Uber driver suspected in several fatal shootings last month in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the other was filed in the name of the man convicted in the fatal 2011 shooting rampage in Arizona that injured then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Here are details about prosecutors' options and the ongoing investigations:

-Potential charges

Federal law doesn't list a specific charge for a person who impersonates someone else when filing a lawsuit. But if the impersonator is identified, prosecutors could pursue charges such as mail fraud or identify theft, according to Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. Turner said mail fraud is often prosecutors' go-to charge if any aspect of a crime involved using the U.S. mail service.

Mail fraud carries a maximum 20-year prison term. Turner said a lengthy term was unlikely in such cases because federal sentencing guidelines often factor in the monetary or emotional impact of a crime, and a defense attorney would likely argue that minimal harm is caused by a phony lawsuit. Turner also noted that such lawsuits are especially rare.

-The bogus lawsuits

Investigators haven't said whether they have identified the person or people who filed the hoax lawsuits in Arizona and Michigan, or whether they plan to pursue criminal charges. Both lawsuits were postmarked in Philadelphia and were filed within days of each other, but not by the listed plaintiffs.

The handwritten lawsuit mailed to U.S. District Court in Detroit listed the plaintiff as Jason Dalton, who is accused of fatally shooting six people last month in between picking up passenger for Uber in Kalamazoo. The hoax $10 million suit, filed March 15, named Uber as a defendant.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix listed Jared Lee Loughner - who is imprisoned in Minnesota - as the plaintiff. Loughner fatally shot six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords, in Tucson. The lawsuit alleged Loughner had been framed and listed Giffords among the defendants.

-How lawsuits are filed

Around 300,000 federal civil lawsuits are filed annually. Most are filed electronically by lawyers for clients, though anyone can mail or deliver a lawsuit to a court clerk's office. Federal law requires that clerks register every lawsuit that comes in, no matter its form - even if written on a napkin - or even if the $400 filing fee is not included.

A lawsuit is typically dismissed if the filer doesn't eventually respond to a formal request for money, said Rod Hansen, a federal court spokesman in Detroit. "That's usually when we'll catch" a hoax or bogus case, he said.

District courts have lists of people who have submitted multiple frivolous lawsuits. The restricted-filing list in U.S. District Court in Chicago, for example, has more than 100 names. But someone using a false name, or someone else's name, may not be detected.

-The harm

A lawsuit filing triggers procedures that can be time-consuming for courts and defendants. Named defendants may have to seek costly legal advice if a lawsuit isn't discovered to be fraudulent within days. Turner noted that fraudulent lawsuits can sometimes be flagged by credit agencies, damaging a defendant's credit rating.

Only a judge can formally dismiss a case, meaning a hoax takes up a judge's time. In Arizona, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa issued a two-page ruling last Thursday dismissing the lawsuit, noting Loughner was in a prison in Minnesota and the lawsuit was mailed from Pennsylvania. She cited "the ongoing abuse of the judicial system" by fabricated lawsuits.

Such judicial action normally leads prosecutors to reach out to the FBI or other investigative agencies for help. A spokesman for federal prosecutors in Arizona, Cosme Lopez, declined to comment on the case last Friday.

The bogus Dalton case in Michigan was still technically open as of last Friday, awaiting a dismissal order.

Published: Tue, Mar 29, 2016