WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed a bill that would take away lawyers' licenses if they repeatedly file frivolous lawsuits, the latest in a Republican drive to crack down on what they consider costly abuses of the legal system.
Supporters of the bill, which passed 228-184, said lawsuits deemed baseless by a judge for flimsy facts or faulty interpretations of the law are a waste of court time and often a bonanza for lawyers — rather than a chance to recoup legitimate damages for clients.
In a statement, the White House called the bill "a step in the right direction" toward eradicating bogus lawsuits.
No Senate vote is expected this year.
Insurance premiums and health care costs have risen as a result of frivolous lawsuits, argued Rep. Lamar Smith (search), R-Texas, the bill's sponsor.
"All they want is for the defendant to settle," Smith said of the lawyers for such plaintiffs. "This is legalized extortion."
Opponents said the legislation would deter more than rogue lawyers. People with legitimate complaints against big companies could be scared off by a provision that would require judges to order the plaintiffs in lawsuits found to be frivolous to pay "reasonable" attorney fees of the defendants.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (search), D-N.Y., said that if a single plaintiff loses to a big corporation that employs multiple attorneys charging high fees, "'reasonable attorney fees' is going to add up to a lot of money."
The American Bar Association says the measure would infringe on states' rights by setting policy in state as well as federal courts.
The bill was approved by the House last year, 229-174, but did not come up for a vote in the Senate. An end-of-year crush of spending bills and other matters also make a Senate vote unlikely this year.
Smith's bill would reinstate a pre-1993 rule setting mandatory penalties against lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits. It would suspend for a year lawyers who file three baseless claims in any judicial circuit during their careers.
The House by voice vote added an amendment sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., that allows sanctions to be imposed for the destruction of certain documents in federal court cases. The amendment also clarifies the anti-forum-shopping provision by saying that if there is no state court in the county in which the injury occurred, the case can be brought in the nearest county where a general court is located.
The Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, opposes the bill. The conference says it would return the courts to a system that required penalties for every violation of the rule and "spawned thousands of court decisions and generated widespread criticism."
Currently, it is up to the judge to decide whether to pursue penalties.