Appellate Circuit

Austin Lawyer Deemed to be a Vexatious Litigant in Court fined $43,000 in Sanctions

“Why does the government have to go after the citizen? There’s something terribly wrong with that,” Connor said. “This is the entire reason that I’m running: It’s because the little guy, the unconnected, the weak, the poor, I feel generally, are being subject to unfairness in the courts, and they are not getting their day in court.

$43,000 Sanction Issued Against Austin Lawyer, Who’s Running for Judge

Madeleine Connor, an Austin attorney who is running for a Travis County district court bench, must pay over $43,000 in sanctions for bringing unreasonable and vexatious litigation.

Published; 28th Jan. 2020

In the Monday order, Pitman granted a defense motion that requested almost $14,000 for defending Connor’s failed appeal. He granted another $29,000 to cover all their defense costs.

“For nearly a year, Connor prosecuted a meritless appeal with no legitimate prospect of success,” the order said. “Connor pursued this third lawsuit in bad faith and for the improper purpose of harassing and annoying defendants. Such conduct constitutes a reckless disregard of the duty owed to this court.”

Madeleine Connor, an Austin attorney who is running for a Travis County district court bench, must pay more than $43,000 in sanctions for bringing unreasonable and vexatious litigation against board members of a utility district.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of the Western District of Texas in Austin ordered Connor to pay the defense attorney fees to Lost Creek Municipal Utility District directors Leah Stewart, Eric Castro and Chuck McCormick.

“Severe monetary sanctions are necessary to send the message to Connor that bad-faith litigation brought for the purpose of harassment will not be tolerated, especially by an officer of the court,” Pitman wrote in a sanctions order. “Connor’s frivolous filings have needlessly diverted this court’s time and resources away from the hundreds of meritorious cases and controversies on its docket.”

Connor, who is challenging incumbent 353rd District Judge Tim Sulak in the Democratic Primary in March, said she doesn’t believe that she did what Pitman wrote in his order. She said her dispute with the utility district started as a lawsuit she filed over the district’s plans to install sidewalks in her neighborhood. She said the district’s directors retaliated against her by sending “litigation status updates” to her neighborhood, and other correspondence and internet postings.

“They have gone out of their way to issue falsehoods about me,” said Connor, general counsel of the Texas Veterans Commission. “It’s their conduct—their repeated conduct—and I was trying to remedy each action that they took.”

The defendants’ lawyer sees it differently.

Scott Tschirhart, partner in Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech in Austin, said his clients are happy with the sanctions order because it vindicates their position. They’ve won other rulings that Connor is a vexatious litigant, and Tschirhart noted that these victories were very rare: He’s never before won such a ruling against an attorney.

“The whole point of this is to get her to stop filing these suits,” he said, noting that his clients won the exact amount they’ve paid to defend themselves from Connor.

‘History of Vexatious Litigation’

The Jan. 27 order in Connor v. Stewart stated that Connor has sued the same defendants three times for the same causes of action. All of those cases were dismissed, because they weren’t well-grounded in law or fact, the order said. The sanctions order noted that Connor has also brought multiple appeals in her lawsuits, which all failed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The basic allegation was that the defendants sent an email about one of Connor’s lawsuits that Connor claimed was “pejorative” and had “evil intent.” But the court ruled that the email only stated the basis of Connor’s claims and said the defendants denied them, and it wouldn’t support a claim for First Amendment retaliation.

Despite a warning from the trial court that sanctions may await further attempts to litigate the matter, Connor filed her third lawsuit—the current one.

When dismissing it, the court found that as a lawyer, Connor should have known the claims were frivolous, the order said. She had a history of vexatious litigation that was meant to harass the defendants and impose litigation costs on them, the court found. The court imposed a pre-filing injunction on her that required her to get permission before suing the same defendants.

Pitman determined that injunction had not worked.

In the Monday order, Pitman granted a defense motion that requested almost $14,000 for defending Connor’s failed appeal. He granted another $29,000 to cover all their defense costs.

“For nearly a year, Connor prosecuted a meritless appeal with no legitimate prospect of success,” the order said. “Connor pursued this third lawsuit in bad faith and for the improper purpose of harassing and annoying defendants. Such conduct constitutes a reckless disregard of the duty owed to this court.”

David v. Goliath?

Sulak, the judge who is running against Connor in the upcoming primary, said that voters need information about judicial candidates so they can make informed choices and scrutinize candidates on their experience, qualifications and behaviors.

“A lawyer who shows reckless disregard for her duty to the court may be viewed as questionable in her role as a judge,” Sulak said.

But Connor said hers is a “David versus Goliath” story, and it motivated her to run for the bench. She said she views herself as “the little guy,” because she was a citizen who challenged the utility district’s sidewalks project. She felt the defendants and defense attorneys attacked and crushed her.

“Why does the government have to go after the citizen? There’s something terribly wrong with that,” Connor said. “This is the entire reason that I’m running: It’s because the little guy, the unconnected, the weak, the poor, I feel generally, are being subject to unfairness in the courts, and they are not getting their day in court.”

Note: In the header image, it’s a 2015 photo of U.S. District Judge Fred Briery (left) presenting U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman following a swearing in ceremony. Biery presided over a rancorous civil case involving Quicken Loans and HouseCanary. HouseCanary won a record $706 million jury verdict against a Quicken Loan affiliate in Bexar County. Briery warned the attorneys to behave or he would make them kiss in front of the Alamo. That must have rubbed off on Pitman.

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