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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Envelope Trick

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator He just left my office with one of those devices called a litigation bag, which sits on rollers with a long handle attached. In the bag were the pro se complaint, pleadings, depositions, counterclaim, motion for partial summary judgment, computer, and bulging correspondence file. I remarked to myself that the days of the elegant, well–worn, bruised leather briefcase are gone.

I shall call him Mr. Fenton. He was about 50 years old. He spoke well, and as he spoke, he looked around the office with a roving eye. He saw that the office door was open. He asked if he could close the door. I nodded. He closed the door. He said he liked my office because it had no windows, just books. Nobody could look in.

He opened the conversation by asking how much time we had for this meeting. I said we had as much time as he wanted.

He took from his litigation bag a big correspondence file. Attached to each letter was its envelope. I remind myself that I have never known a case to be decided by an envelope.

Before he spoke about his case, he said he understood I was raised right here in Washington. He asked where I went to high school. I said Central High. He said, “Did you know that J. Edgar Hoover went to Central High School?” I said I did. “Did you ever meet J. Edgar Hoover?” I said no, I never met him.

Mr. Fenton then turned to his legal case. He had been employed by the government. He was illegally terminated. His superiors did not like the way he took notes of every conversation he had with them (as he was doing with me). He said his notes prove he was in the right in each decision he made. He has sued his superiors and the government for defamation. It is not money he wants, it is vindication, it is justice. He said his case was a sure thing. Furthermore, his legal background would be of great assistance to whatever attorney he chooses.

I quickly concluded that he and I would not get along with each other. He was the incurable litigant. How to disengage? The envelope trick.

I told him envelopes are only clutter. I gently pulled the envelope apart from one of the letters he wanted me to read. I then dropped the envelope into the waste paper basket. He immediately jumped up and retrieved the envelope. He then looked at his watch. He said he had the names of other lawyers he wished to interview. He would get back in touch with me.

Meetings like this bring to mind Piero Calamandrei’s book Eulogy of Judges. He recalled a plaintiff litigant, 90 years old, who had commenced a family lawsuit. His adversaries were young. Their tactic was to outlive the plaintiff. “Thus began an epic duel between civil procedure and longevity.” Calamandrei recalled that the old man, instead of aging, rallied and became an expert in civil procedure.

A week later, I received a call from a lawyer friend of mine who said Mr. Fenton had been to see him and had mentioned my name. What did I think of Fenton’s case? I said I had taken a quick look at the complaint and it seemed to me there was a statute of limitations issue. Doesn’t a defamation claim have to be brought within a year? If so, Mr. Fenton filed out of time. My lawyer friend said when he told Fenton this, Fenton said a prominent lawyer had told him that he had two years to file suit. We finished off our conversation by noting that there soon would be another defendant in the case.

Later that month, I had lunch with a retired psychologist. I spoke of the Fenton conversation. He said Fenton was suffering from litigious paranoia—in Latin, paranoia querulans,the querulans easily translatable as quarrel. He said there was a good definition of the illness in, of all places, the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, published in 1911 in England. He was surprised to learn that I had a copy of the encyclopedia’s 11th edition—all 29 volumes. It is an extraordinary set of books. Each entry is written by a distinguished specialist in the field. The writing is 18th century Addison and Steele.

That evening, I took down Volume 21 to read the entry my psychologist friend mentioned. Here is the lead paragraph:

Litigious Paranoia (paranoia querulans)—The clinical form of litigious paranoia presents uniform characteristic features which are recognized in every civilized community. The basic emotion is vanity, but added to that is a strong element both of acquisitiveness and avarice. Moreover the subjects are, as regards character, persistent, opinionative and stubborn. When these qualities are superadded to a mind of the paranoiac type, which as has been pointed out, is more influenced by the passions or emotions than by ordinary rational considerations, it can readily be appreciated that the subjects are capable of creating difficulties and anxieties which sooner or later may lead to their forcible seclusion in the interests of social order.

This was written before Freudian psychoanalysis, and in a way, it is devoid of some psychological quackery that tends to confuse. If the entry were rewritten today, the only change would be to reframe the diagnosis of vanity into narcissism, the narcissist being the person thinking of no one but oneself. Or, as George Eliot (not Freud or Jung) said, “What we see exclusively, we see out of proportion to reality.”

If I get another call from a lawyer who Fenton visited, I shall tell the lawyer (if he is a friend) all about litigious paranoia and the envelope trick.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.