Fordham Law


When payout may be $975 septillion, court fees are a small price to pay

James A. Cohen in The Journal News, October 13, 2013

Media Source

Charles Oji’s lawsuits didn’t exactly start small. He demanded $1 million from the FBI, more than $4 million from his former landlord, and another $4 million from Verizon.

And then, suddenly, his ambitions became bigger. A lot bigger. In subsequent suits, he demanded $975 septillion from the Yonkers Police Department; that’s 975 followed by 24 zeros. He also demanded $927 septillion from the New York Police Department.

Oji, a two-time graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later lost his way, is what the courts call a vexatious litigant.

The bane of many a court clerk’s existence, vexatious litigants file lawsuit after lawsuit, each as unrealistic or misplaced as the last.

In Oji’s case, that means at least 13 since 2009. He claimed that he was Jesus Christ after the first several were dismissed. That didn’t help sway judges.

“The only ‘new fact’ cited by Plaintiff — his proclamation that he is Jesus Christ — fails to offer any basis for reconsideration of the order” to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos wrote in September, dismissing the suit against the Yonkers police.

Vexatious litigants, also known as serial litigants, have been a feature of the court system since its inception, and court clerks are often the front line when dealing with them.

The most basic barrier against filing a lawsuit is the filing fee, which is $210 in Westchester County and $350 in federal courts in the Southern District of New York. That fee can be waived in rare cases, when a judge finds that the litigant cannot afford it.

But that bar is high, and many judges are loath to bend the rules.

In either case, fees often do not deter the most persistent litigants, like Oji, who figure it’s a small price to pay for what could be an important righting of an injustice, or a big payout, or merely the satisfaction of being an irritant in the side of a powerful institution.

James A. Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, figures that most of them simply need mental help. He said he has long thought that there should be mechanisms in place for a court to direct a serial litigant to get such treatment, and while courts have the power to bar litigants from filing further suits without prior court approval, most judges consider that measure extreme.

“They’re different, but they’re much the same,” Cohen said. “It’s an abuse of the court process.”

But experts also said the suits, however irksome to court clerks, judges, and lawyers who must defend against them — not to mention costly for taxpayers who must foot the bill — might be a permanent feature of our justice system, since a central tenet of a modern democracy is that citizens have nearly irrevocable rights to seek relief for perceived injustices in the judicial system.

For Oji, who hasn’t held a job in years, the suits don’t seem to represent a legitimate chance at recompense so much as outlet for his anger and intellectual steam. They are detailed, occasionally well-written, and just as occasionally a bit odd.

One against the Yonkers Police Department claims many of the city’s cab drivers are “street criminals and dirty lawless undercover cops,” in the course of complaining that the police did not arrest young men who smoked in his apartment building.

In another, Oji said his former landlords “used mystic and satanic ritualistic methods to for example draw energies from my Star.”

“There is a way people should conduct themselves,” Oji, a native of Nigeria, said in an interview. “They ignore me. They’re not supposed to ignore my complaints.”

Later, in a text message he wrote: “When someone has the audacity to call himself Jesus Christ, he should be taken seriously,” adding, “AND I KNOW THAT I AM JESUS CHRIST.”

Professors at MIT, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, described him as a “normal” student, who exhibited few signs of mental distress.

Another, however, said Oji occasionally seemed conspiracy-minded.

After graduation, Oji held a string of technology jobs, first at Goldman Sachs, then at the United Nations and, for a stretch, in California, where his brother, Martin Oji, is a Christian pastor.

About three years ago, something went wrong. Oji said his doctors recommended that he permanently work from home because of stress, and he soon lost the California job and moved to Yonkers, getting by on $830 a month in disability payments.

That was also about the time the lawsuits started. Nearly all of them have been dismissed in terse decisions.

But Oji doesn’t seem deterred, and scoffs that septillions of dollars is too much to ask for.

“At one point, I can’t continue to be polite,” he said.