Riffin v. Baltimore County

Decision Date05 January 2010
Docket NumberNo. 2939, September Term, 2008.,2939, September Term, 2008.
Citation985 A.2d 612,190 Md. App. 11
PartiesJames RIFFIN v. CIRCUIT COURT FOR BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

James Riffin, Pro Se.

Paul M. Mayhew, Adam M. Rosenblatt, John E. Beverungen, County Atty., on brief, for Appellee.

Panel: DAVIS, ZARNOCH, SHARER, J. FREDERICK (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.

ZARNOCH, J.

These consolidated cases raise the important question of whether due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard before a court declares a person to be a "frivolous" or "vexatious" litigant, who must seek leave from the administrative judge before filing "any pleadings." In this appeal, James Riffin, appellant, contends that the Circuit Court for Baltimore County failed to afford him due process before issuing such an order. Appellees1 argue that the order is not presently appealable, and, alternatively, that the ruling was justified under the circumstances. We conclude that this pre-filing order was a sua sponte injunction authorized by Md. Rule 15-602(b) and thus, appealable under Md.Code (1973, 2006 Repl.Vol.), Courts and Judicial Proceedings (CJP) Article, § 12-303(3)(i). However, we agree with the unanimous holdings of federal and state authorities that due process requires notice to the alleged frivolous or vexatious litigant and an opportunity for him to be heard before the issuance of a pre-filing order. The question of whether such an order is warranted is for the circuit court to determine after due process has been satisfied. Therefore, we must vacate the circuit court's order and remand for further proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Riffin has repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought judicial approval of his contention that he and certain entities owned by him are a "railroad" exempt from certain State and local environmental regulations. Spawning a multitude of cases before trial and appellate courts in various jurisdictions, he also has attempted to remove his litigation to federal court. After one such attempt in September 2007, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland responded with a "Memorandum Opinion," explaining the reasons why removal was improper, and then stating:

Riffin has made numerous attempts to disrupt valid state proceedings by filing civil rights complaints seeking injunctive relief against Baltimore County and by removing proceedings to this Court, forcing state proceedings to a grinding halt. Riffin's use of federal litigation to stonewall efforts by local authorities to enforce state law is abusive and this Court declines to facilitate those efforts any further. "[F]ederal courts have the power and the obligation to protect themselves from abusive filing of frivolous and repetitive claims." McMahon v. F.M. Bank-Winchester, 45 F.3d 426 (4th Cir.1994) (unpublished) (per curiam), cf. Procup v. Strickland, 792 F.2d 1069, 1070-71 (11th Cir.1986) (en banc). Before Riffin will be permitted to file another pro se civil action in this Court he will be required to seek leave to do so. In so doing, Riffin will be required to state succinctly how the original complaint or removed case differs from other actions filed and dismissed or remanded by this Court. In the event the claim is accepted for filing and it is revealed that Riffin misrepresented the nature of the proceedings, he will be required to show cause why he should not be subject to sanctions.

Baltimore County, Maryland v. James Riffin, Civil Action No. RDB-07-2301 (D.Md. Oct. 4, 2007) (footnote omitted).2

Apparently buckling under the weight of Riffin's filings, the Baltimore County Attorney's Office learned of the federal ruling and decided to take action. On January 28, 2009, County Attorney John E. Beverungen wrote to The Hon. Peter B. Krauser, Chief Judge, Court of Special Appeals, and The Hon. John G. Turnbull, II, Chief Judge, Circuit Court for Baltimore County, with a "cc" to James Riffin.3 The letter stated:

I wish to bring to your attention a situation that has, frankly, gotten out of hand.... James Riffin[] owns a warehouse in northern Baltimore County that abuts Beaver Dam Run, a stream that flows into Loch Raven reservoir. For the last five years, State and County officials have been trying to get Mr. Riffin to comply with various zoning and environmental laws. He has contemptuously resisted all such attempts on the grounds that he is purportedly running a railroad on the property and is, therefore, allegedly exempt from State and Local law. However, this preemption argument has been squarely rejected by the United States District Court for the District of Maryland (Bennett, J.), and that ruling was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Yet these adverse rulings have not kept Mr. Riffin from filing over 100 pleadings, motions, and appellate briefs in your courts over the past several years, each one more frivolous than the last.

After detailing five years of Riffin's litigation efforts, the letter went on to note:

While this brief history provides an overview of some of the major events that have occurred over the last four years, it does not come close to explaining the amount of time that the Baltimore County Office of Law has spent responding to Mr. Riffin's pleadings. Mr. Riffin has already been declared a frivolous litigant in Federal District Court.... However, rather than stemming the flow of frivolous pleadings, this has merely caused Riffin to file more papers in the state courts. As I am sure you will understand, the Baltimore County Office of Law does not have the time or manpower to continue to respond to Mr. Riffin's frivolous pleadings. As such, I would respectfully request that you too declare Mr. Riffin a "frivolous litigant" and refuse to accept any further court filings without prior judicial approval.

In response to the County's request, Chief Judge Turnbull issued a "Memorandum Opinion" dated February 3, 2009. The opinion, which contained no docket number, but was captioned "In Re: James Riffin", said:

As Chief Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, it has come to my attention that James Riffin is a party to thirteen (13) open cases before the Court. All of these cases arise out of the same legal controversy; to wit, whether he, as an alleged railroad operation, is exempt from State and local environmental regulations. After reviewing the numerous previously decided cases involving Mr. Riffin and state and local authorities, it is clear that the legal controversy underlying this dispute has already been decided against Mr. Riffin in administrative, State and Federal Courts. However, Mr. Riffin continues to file frivolous and vexatious litigation against Baltimore County and various County officials, including the Assistant County Attorneys working on these cases, for the purpose of avoiding or forestalling the legal rulings that this and other courts have made against him. It appears that the volume of papers that Mr. Riffin has filed in this Court has increased since he was declared a frivolous litigant by Judge Richard Bennett and barred from filing any further papers in the United States District Court without first obtaining leave of Court....

The opinion then noted:

Courts have the power and the obligation to protect themselves from abusive filing of frivolous and repetitive claims. See Maryland Rule 1-341. While an argument for the payment of attorney's fees could already be made in this case, the Court will reserve on this issue and instead hold that Mr. Riffin is hereby declared a frivolous litigant. Accordingly, before Mr. Riffin will be permitted to file any further pleadings or civil actions in this Court, he will be required to seek leave to do so from the Administrative Judge or acting Administrative Judge of this Court. Mr. Riffin will be required to state succinctly how the original complaint or subsequent pleading differs from other actions filed and adjudicated by this Court. No pleading will be accepted for filing by Mr. Riffin, or on Mr. Riffin's behalf, until he obtains prior approval from the Court. In the event that Mr. Riffin does obtain such approval, and it is revealed that he misrepresented the nature of the proceedings, he will be required to show cause why he should not be subject to further sanctions....

The memorandum opinion was accompanied by an order that stated in pertinent part:

For the reasons stated in the foregoing Memorandum Opinion, it is ... hereby ORDERED that:

1. James Riffin is hereby declared a frivolous litigant.

2. The Clerk SHALL NOT ACCEPT FOR FILING any pleadings filed by James Riffin, or filed on his behalf, unless he has first obtained leave of this Court to do so from the Administrative Judge o[r] acting Administrative Judge of this Court.

Although neither the February 3 opinion nor the order noted specific cases, the circuit court, the following day, entered both the opinion and order in six pending actions.4

In a letter dated February 3, 2009, and addressed to Chief Judge Turnbull, Chief Judge Krauser, and Chief Judge Robert Bell of the Court of Appeals, appellant stated that he had received Baltimore County's letter on February 2, 2009, and that he requested the "return [of] Mr. Beverungen's letter" because it constituted an improper ex parte communication. Alternatively, appellant "ask[ed] for [l]eave of the [c]ourts to reply to [the] [l]etter." A certificate of service dated February 3, 2009, was attached to the letter.5 A 17-page document entitled "James Riffin's Answer to Mr. Beverungen's Letter" accompanied this letter, and argued that appellant was not a frivolous or vexatious litigant. This document bore a certificate of service dated February 3, 2009.6 An envelope postmarked February 4, 2009 was stapled to the letter and answer. Noted in blue ink in the bottom right hand corner of the envelope was "2/5/09." These documents, which were not date-stamped or...

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