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I often hear it said on this site that, in the U.S., you can sue anyone for anything at anytime; it's just a question of whether your lawsuit will be taken seriously and whether you stand a chance of winning.

So, suppose I sue somebody for looking at me funny. I assume this lawsuit will be promptly thrown out. But what I don't understand is exactly why it will be thrown out.

Is it because there's no law against giving funny looks? Is it because the harm I experienced didn't pass a certain threshold? Is it because a reasonable person wouldn't care that much about getting a funny look? Is it because there is no precedent for such a lawsuit? Is it just up to the whims of the judge that day?

What are the principles used to decide whether a lawsuit is to be taken seriously?

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What are the principles used to decide whether a lawsuit is to be taken seriously?

A lawsuit will normally be taken seriously (assuming the court has jurisdiction) unless:

  • De minimis: trivial, negligible matter, although otherwise valid;
  • Frivolous cases: attempts to advance absurd claims/arguments;
  • Vexatious cases: suing with the intent to cause trouble (as opposed to make justice);
  • Abuse of process: similar to vexatious cases, but more general: suing with some covert/devious intentions, as opposed to aiming to get things right.

Of course all the above may be and often is subjective. That's why we have judges.

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  • The other common category is a "groundless" case, i.e. a case which on its face is meritorious and not vexatious, but simply lacks factual support because there is no evidence to support that the facts alleged are true and even a modest investigation would have revealed this to be the case.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 1 at 19:24
  • @ohwilleke Correct, though such a case will actually proceed and will be lost by the plaintiff — as opposed to being thrown out at the early stages, no?
    – Greendrake
    Apr 1 at 19:34
  • If a case is revealed to be groundless at any stage, both attorney and client are subject to being sanctioned for bringing a lawsuit without substantial justification, both the attorney under FRCP 11 and the equivalent and/or the client under, e.g., Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-17-102. A motion for summary judgment (including converted motions to dismiss), an evidentiary pretrial hearing (e.g. on a preliminary injunction or in a eviction), or a motion for sanctions, are contexts in which the fact that a suit is groundless could be revealed, the case tossed, and the party and/or attorney sanctioned.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 1 at 20:53
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There are several. First of all, the suit must state a claim for action under the law. This means there must be some law, or case law, which permits a person to sue in the kind of situation at hand. The claim for "looking at me funny" would probably be thrown out at this stage, unless perhaps it could be framed as a case of harassment. This often has a good deal to do with how the case is framed and what laws it cites as giving the plaintiff the right to sue, and the right to a remedy.

Secondly, the plaintiff must usually allege significant harm, actual or in some cases potential.

In federal courts, and some state courts this is often part of having standing to sue. A person only has standing when that person can show a real and significant actual harm, or a likely imminent harm, as a result of defendant's alleged actions. For example if a person claims that Congress has passed an unconstitutional law, but that person is not personally affected by the law, that person has no standing to sue.

Thirdly the claim must be one that is within the jurisdiction of the court. That means both that it is the kind of claim that the court is authorized to handle, aka subject matter jurisdiction, and that the court has authority over all parties (personal jurisdiction),

You can't sue for slander in a landlord/tenant or a traffic court court, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Nor can you sue for theft under a state law in a federal court, it only has jurisdiction over "federal questions" (or in some cases over issues between people in different states, diversity jurisdiction). And if person A in Georgia did something to person B in Georgia, B cannot normally sue in a California court, although if the is some connection to California, the court may find it enough.

Thirdly the suit must present a claim for a remedy which the court is authorized by statute or precedent to give. In some kinds of cases, the law may permit an injunction. but not a claim for money damages. In proceedings for action under the California Consumer Privacy Act (for example) most provisions can only be enforced by the California Attorney General, not by a private litigant. This will vary widely depending on the specific law involved.

A classic example of a frivolous suit is United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D.Pa. 1971) in which a prison inmate sued Satan and his assistant devils, claiming that "Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff's downfall" and had therefore "deprived him of his constitutional rights". The judge noted that Satan was not under the control of the prison, and it was not clear if he was a US resident, but dismissed the suit on the technicality that the prisoner has not told the US Marshals where and how to serve the needed papers on Satan.

Dismissal of a lawsuit as frivolous, or as "not reasonable" is a judgement call by the court, guided by past cases on the topic, of which there are many. Details will matter. A good lawyer should be able to advise if such a dismissal is likely.

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  • You missed the prima facie requirement. If everything the plaintiff states is 100% true, there must be a reasonable prospect that they will win.
    – Dale M
    Apr 1 at 3:21
  • @DaleM The Rule 11 standard is:a bit broader than that: "(1) well-grounded in fact based upon a reasonable inquiry of the pro se party by the attorney, (2) is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law, and (3) is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation."
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 1 at 20:56

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