NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Advocates for domestic violence victims are praising a new Tennessee law that seeks to stop a common tactic that batterers use after their victims have fled to safety: Filing frivolous lawsuits designed to bankrupt or inflict more harm on the people they already have abused.
Those who work with battered women say forcing victims to spend money on lawyers and fight multiple legal challenges is common. In fact, there’s even a term some advocates use for it: Stalking by way of the courts.
“I think it’s the least understood and most overlooked form of abuse that I know of,” said Amira Samuel, an advocate for survivors of domestic violence. Samuel is compensation program director at FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps victims across the country rebuild their lives financially.
She applauded Tennessee’s new statute.
There are state laws around the country aimed at stopping someone from using the legal system simply to inflict harm. However, It’s not clear if any other state has moved to protect such a narrow group of people.
The measure, signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in May, only applies to ex-spouses, former romantic partners and family members. It would allow a judge to hold a hearing to determine whether someone has filed abusive civil lawsuits designed to “harass or maliciously injure” a victim by exhausting their economic resources or trying to force them to make financial or child-custody concessions.
The law gives a judge the power to stop someone from filing additional abusive lawsuits for least four years but no more than six years.
The law’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Carter from Ooltewah, is an attorney and former judge.
“In the cases I’ve reviewed, it’s just a litigious form of domestic assault,” Carter said.
One case that unsettled him involved a former Memphis-area lawyer who’s now in prison for trying three times to kill his wife, and keeps filing legal actions against her.
Fred Auston Wortman III is serving a 30-year sentence, but that hasn’t stopped him from going to court over parenting time and other matters. He was there again Thursday, via telephone from prison, pursuing new motions that he ended up dropping.
His ex-wife, Staci Jones, teaches English as a second language and said she probably owes more than $100,000 from ongoing legal battles with a man she hoped to never see again.
“It seems like he has more rights where he is than I do,” she said.
After the new law takes effect in July, her attorney, Mitzi Johnson, intends to use it to put a stop to the harassment.
“I do think it’s about power,” Johnson said. “It’s the only type of power he has over her right now.”
Another Tennessee woman told state legislators that she had spent $400,000 fighting lawsuits filed by her ex-husband. She told members of a Senate committee that he would lose in one county and then file the same suit elsewhere.
She did not respond to calls from the Associated Press seeking comment.
A victim’s unwillingness to talk is no surprise to advocates for domestic violence victims, who say the prospect of facing their abusers in a courtroom can be terrifying. “It’s a form of psychological violence, and that’s what we see quite frequently,” said John Hasley, deputy director of litigation at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas.
Abusers gain power and control by forcing their victims to show up on demand in a courtroom, he said. They can drag out legal proceedings, cause their victims to miss work and make them pay a small fortune, even if the case is dismissed by a judge.
Hasley and others say judges need to see through abusive tactics. Yet some judges and attorneys still don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence and may blame both parties for not getting along — the equivalent of calling a mugging a dispute over a wallet, advocates say.
There is a real problem in family courts with judges not believing the victims, said Joan Meier, a professor of law at George Washington University and founder of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP).
Meier worries that Tennessee’s law might have the unintended consequence of empowering batterers who are taken to court for legitimate reasons, such as harming the children or not paying child support. Batterers across the country, she said, have sometimes won millions of dollars after filing lawsuits against victims claiming malicious prosecution or abuse of the legal process.
She thinks the Tennessee law should have a provision that says it does not apply when someone makes claims about a child’s welfare in good faith.
Still, Meier thinks the law addresses a real problem because abusers often go to court to try and prove they are right.
“Litigation abuse is rampant,” she said, “and it’s devastating.”