Obsessive litigants are individuals who burden the judicial process by repeatedly filing causes of action that are ultimately found to be with little or no merit. If you are a litigator, chances are that you may have interacted or heard about one over the course of your career. You would probably have little difficulty conjuring up a story of at least one individual who frequently inhabits the doorways of law offices and courthouses, each time with a new complaint against an individual or a group of people. The cost or consequences of litigation are sometimes trivial to these clients, whereas retribution for a real or imagined slight or injustice is their foremost priority.
Persistent litigation has been described across professions in different ways. Legally, it is referred to as “vexatious litigation,” whereas medically it has been diagnosed as “querulous paranoia” and “litigious paranoia”. In general, these terms describe an individual who exhibits several of the following qualities:
- Repeatedly files pleadings of motions.
- Has a life that revolves around the development and progress of litigation.
- Is not deterred by repeated negative outcomes.
- Files pleadings or motions that are trivial or unfounded.
- Invests great amounts of time in litigation.
- Is a known and persistent presence for lawyers, judges, and clerks.
- Finds counsel who more or less identify with their client, presumably for reasons having to do with their own personal psychology, with the resulting attorney-client dyad being driven by a mission.
- No settlement can ever occur due to the resulting lack of client control.
- Evidence of narcissistic and paranoid personality traits, generally manifested by attitudes expressed verbally or behaviorally (e.g., publication/dissemination of the obsessive litigant’s court filings).
- A refusal to settle disputes through customary procedural channels of negotiation and even traditional litigation. The obsessive litigant wishes to have his alleged suffering, humiliation and victimization witnessed on the stage of litigation.
- Consequently, he will reject favorable settlement offers, if he believes that acceptance will terminate the litigation and his chances to obtain the imagined vindication.
- The inability to settle is a direct product of his peculiar motivation to litigate in the first place, i.e., to have his alleged victimization witnessed, not to resolve conflict.
- Of course, such motivation leads to an endless quest because no degree of witnessing and acknowledgment of his pain can ever approach the unconditional love for which he longs and thus “restore” his wounded narcissism and damaged self-esteem.
For the purposes of this post, we will refer to these individuals as “obsessive litigants”. This term is more neutral than previously used terms such as querulous, paranoid, and vexatious that are pejorative. The term obsessive litigant is meant to be descriptive and free of inferences regarding the behavior’s origins or the individual’s level of psychological functioning.
An obsessive litigant is an individual who makes excessive and egregious use of the legal system for a primarily nonlegal purpose. It should be noted that, although there is usually a legal purpose for their suits, the legal purpose is not paramount to the needs of the client. We also note that this is not a single trait but rather a grouping of common characteristics of obsessive behavior. A litigant may exhibit only some of the above characteristics in an exaggerated manner and still fall within the construct of the obsessive litigant.
History of the Obsessive Litigant Behavior1
Although it is referred to by different names in different professional fields, as well as in different parts of the world, the concept of obsessive litigant behavior is a well-documented phenomenon throughout history. Recently, Benjamin Levy2 published a two-part article on the history of this behavior in which he discussed historical origins and geographical differences in how excessive litigation has been conceptualized and researched. In Part 1 of his article, he traced the history of “paranoia querulans” and the “litigant’s delusion” in France and in German-speaking countries. In Part 2 of the article, he discussed the history of querulous behavior and vexatious litigation in the United States3. Before we delve further into our own conceptualizations of such litigants, we will recapitulate and expand upon the Levy reviews.
Germany: The Litigant’s Delusion and Paranoia Querulans
German psychiatrist Johann Ludwig Casper4 would later refer to trialophilia as Querulantenwahn, which translates as “litigant’s delusion.” Casper asserted that all human beings strongly resent real or imagined threats to their basic rights, leading them to take legal action to protect their rights when necessary. When these individuals are not granted the rights they desire or are otherwise displeased with the outcome of legal proceedings, they become fixated on attaining justice. This fixation begins a downward spiral that eventually results in a full-blown delusional disorder. German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing added to Casper’s definition by classifying these delusions as a kind of persecutory delusion. These classifications laid the foundation for subsequent German psychiatrists to study and debate the concept of obsessive litigant behavior for the next half century.
Debates followed about whether litigant’s delusion should be classified as a subtype of paranoid or persecutory delusion, as a freestanding disorder, or as a variant of another psychological illness. When German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin5 wrote Psychiatrie, he departed from previous editions of the text that grouped litigant’s delusion with paranoia and persecutory delusions.
France: Persecuted-Persecutors and Delusions of Revindication
Although France is in geographical proximity to Germany, the development of the concept of obsessive litigant behavior evolved differently there. French psychiatrist Henri Taguet referred to these litigants as “persecuted-persecutors,” which became the accepted nomenclature in French psychiatric literature. Like Kraepelin, French scholars generally believed that obsessive litigants were exaggerating or distorting real events6. Many early French researchers seemed to consider these behaviors to be evidence of long-standing personality defects rather than complications arising from one’s interpretation of an event. In addition, Benjamin Ball combined the existing views on listed features he believed to be common among all obsessive litigants: relentless activity, outstanding tenacity, personal elation, abuse of logic, and graphomania7.
The associated concept of reasoning mania fell out of favor with many French scholars in the late 19th century, and persecuted-persecutors disappeared from the research literature shortly thereafter. This idea was replaced by what the French psychiatrist Benjamin Pailhas referred to as delusions of revindication. Pailhas believed these individuals, unlike those with paranoia querulans, who were said to be seeking more than their fair share of rights, perceived that they had lost things that rightfully belonged to them and were bitterly revolting against the person or entity responsible for the seizure8. Gaëtan De Clérambault broadened this classification by describing what he called “delusions of passion”, which included delusions of revindication, erotomania, and pathological jealousy9. Those who exhibit evidence of delusions of passion become fixated on a goal and feverishly pursue the goal to its end, which is reminiscent of Casper’s early description of a litigant’s delusion.
United States: Vexatious Litigants and Unusually Persistent Complainants
Following Levy’s lead, we now focus on obsessive litigant behavior in the United States. Unlike in Germany and France, this concept has received little attention from psychiatrists and psychologists in the United States. Most of the research regarding obsessive litigant behavior has been conducted by legal researchers who seek to determine its impact on the legal system. Despite being a neglected topic in psychological literature, obsessive litigant behavior is alluded to in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The most recent version of the DSM, DSM-5, describes a persecutory delusion in which the individual “may engage in repeated attempts to obtain satisfaction by legal action10.” The ICD-10 includes paranoia querulans as a freestanding persistent delusional disorder: that is, a disorder “in which the delusion or delusions are accompanied by persistent hallucinatory voices or by schizophrenic symptoms11.” Each of these definitions is similar to the German psychiatrists’ description of litigants’ delusions. Nonetheless, psychological research on this concept in the United States remains modest.
Obsessive litigant behavior is acknowledged in the two primary diagnostic manuals on mental illness used worldwide, and extant psychological research suggests similarities between American obsessive litigants and those in other countries. However, mental health professionals have had little role in the management of obsessive litigants in the United States. Levy offered a hypothesis about why persistent litigants are in practice rarely seen as pathological in this country. Levy’s hypothesis is related to the depiction of legal action in popular media. In many popular novels and films, extended litigation is often associated with meritorious legal issues and is enacted by well-adjusted individuals.
An Alternative Conceptualization
The similarities between obsessive litigants and patients with delusional thought patterns or evidence of paranoia cannot be ignored and neither can previous assertions that some obsessive litigant behavior arises from psychotic symptoms. However, psychotic symptoms do not seem to be common to all of these litigants. Whereas most patients with delusions present with disorganized or idiosyncratic beliefs, some obsessive litigants present with a detailed and logical account of their grievances12. The common characteristic in obsessive litigants is a maladaptive pattern of behavior, and such patterns arise and are maintained by a variety of factors.
Mental Health Treatment and Conclusion
Legal remedies reduce the burden placed on targets of vexatious proceedings and on the legal system, but such remedies do not address the underlying motivations for this type of behavior. Even after facing legal sanctions, many litigants find additional ways to continue to harass others through misuse of the legal system. Unfortunately, legal remedies do not address the mental health needs of individuals whose obsessive litigant behavior is part of a psychological disorder.
Obsessive litigants often live unhappy, frustrated, difficult lives in which they obsess continuously about their pending lawsuit. Many are left destitute by their relentless pursuits of justice. They rarely seek therapy on their own, largely because of a pervasive belief that they stand with justice and fairness in a system of thwarted passageways and insensitive legal professionals.
So, what can be done? Research on therapeutic management of these individuals has been limited. Case reports and anecdotal accounts have offered some evidence supporting the efficacy of cognitive behavioral interventions. However, there is no systematic research regarding how existing psychotherapeutic interventions may be applied to manage obsessive litigant behavior. The scant research literature has examined management through medication. In one study on managing these behaviors with medication, Ungvari13 found that low doses of an antipsychotic medication reduced symptoms of obsessive litigant behavior in a small sample of individuals with a diagnosis of “litigious paranoia.” Similarly, Mullen and Lester14 offered anecdotal evidence of improvements in obsessive litigants with whom they were working after a course of atypical antipsychotic medication. For the obsessive litigants with delusional thought patterns or psychotic features, these interventions seem reasonable. For those without these features, who instead present only with maladaptive patterns of behavior, other interventions seem more appropriate.
Of course, obsessive litigants always present with obsessional traits15. In the context of speculative treatments, for the very small number of persons who have insight that their behaviors impair their lives, the standard approaches to obsessive-compulsive (OC) disorders may help. Exposure and response prevention therapies have a reasonable track record with OC disorders, especially when used in combination with mainstream antidepressant medications1617. For the small minority of persons who seek treatment voluntarily, this strategy would address preoccupation with the grievance and claims process.
Another subset of obsessive litigants has awareness that their lives are disrupted by their actions, but are unwilling to seek professional treatment, in part because of the stigma associated with such labeling. In large cities, experimental peer help programs similar to Alcoholics Anonymous might be initiated. These peer groups also have a reasonable track record in promoting reductions or cessations in problematic substance use when used in conjunction with individualized treatment18. We could envision a group of Obsessive Litigants Anonymous (OLA?) that could work together to address the behaviors that have some elements of an addiction.
Obsessive Litigants and the judicial system may benefit from using management techniques similar to those intended to assist persons with mental illness who face criminal charges. Over the past 20 years, many jurisdictions have established mental health courts that are meant to promote therapeutic healing by addressing the root causes of behaviors that bring individuals to the courts19. These courts stipulate that an individual must complete court-monitored assessments and a treatment plan before their legal case is addressed and resolved20. In many states, these courts have produced numerous positive outcomes for those involved21.
Existing statues allow the mental health court paradigm to lend itself to the management of obsessive litigants. Many of the statutes that are intended to keep obsessive litigants at bay allow a judge to decide whether and when an individual deemed vexatious is allowed to engage in future litigation. Requiring obsessive litigants to participate in a similar program before being allowed to pursue further litigation may help to alleviate some of the load these individuals place on overtaxed judicial systems. All three of the suggested strategies also allow for data to be gathered directly from litigants, enabling forensic psychiatrists and the judicial system to gain greater understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to the development and maintenance of relentless litigation.
- 1 Daniel needs to be credited by the reader with having cut this section to size. Motivated by what I thought were interesting research results, I intended to start this history with Aristophanes’ first recorded reference to excessive involvement with the legal system in The Wasps. Written in 422 BCE, the play depicted the statesman Philocleon who was labeled a “trialophile” because he was addicted to court proceedings. Daniel drew the line at the late 19th century.
- 2 Levy B: From paranoia querulans to vexatious litigants: a short study on madness between psychiatry and the law, Part 1 Hist Psychiatry 25:299–316, 2014
- 3 Levy B: From paranoia querulans to vexatious litigants: a short study on madness between psychiatry and the law, Part 2 Hist Psychiatry 26:36–49, 2015
- 4 Casper JL: Practisches Handbuch der gerichtliche Medizin [Practical Handbook of JudicialMedicine]. Berlin: Hirschwald, 1857
- 5 Kraeplin E: Psychiatrie, ein kurzes Lehrbuch fur Studirende und Aerzte (8th ed). [Clinical Psychiatry: A Textbook for Students and Physicians, Leipzig: Barth, 1909
- 6 Workman J: Bonfigli on Moral Insanity, in The American Journal of Insanity. Edited by Medical Officers of the New York State Lunatic Asylum. Utica, New York: Roberts & Co. Printers, pp 476–96, 1879
- 7 Ball B: Du délire des persecutions, ou maladie de Laségue [Delirium of persecutions, or Laségue disease]. Paris: Asselin et Houzeau, 1890
- 8 Pailhas B: Etats monomaniaques lies a une deviation de l’instinct de conservation de la propriete; leur interet au point de vue medico-legal [Monomaniac states related to a deviation of the property of self-preservation: their interest from a forensic standpoint]. Albi, France: Amalric, 1895
- 9 De Clérambault GG: Les délires passionnels: érotomanie, revendication, jalousie [Delusions of passion: erotomania, revindication, delusional jealousy]. Bulletin de la Société Clinique de Médecine Mentale 9:61–71, 1921
- 10 American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013
- 11 World Health Organization: ICD-10 Version: 2015, Geneva: Author, 2015
- 12 Mullen PE, Lester G: Vexatious litigants and unusually persistent complainants and petitioners: from querulous paranoia to querulous behavior. Behav Sci & Law 24:333–49, 2006
- 13 Ungvari GS: Successful treatment of litigious paranoia with pimozide. Can J Psychiatry 38:4–8, 1993
- 14 Mullen PE, Lester G: Vexatious litigants and unusually persistent complainants and petitioners: from querulous paranoia to querulous behavior. Behav Sci & Law 24:333–49, 2006
- 15 Id.
- 16 Abramowitz JS: Effectiveness of psychological and pharmacological treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder: a quantitative review. J Consult Clin Psychol 65:44–52, 1997
- 17 Picinelli M, Pini S, Bellantuono C, et al: Efficacy of drug treatment in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a meta-analytic review. Br J Psychiatry 166:424–43, 1995
- 18 Humphreys K, Wing S, McCarty D, et al: Self-help organizations for alcohol and drug problems: toward evidence-based practice and policy. J Substance Abuse Treat 26:151–8, 2004
- 19 Casey PM, Rottman DB: Problem-solving courts: models and trends. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2003
- 20 Bureau of Justice Assistance: Mental Health Courts: A Primer for Policymakers and Practitioners. New York: Council of State Government Justice Center, 2008
- 21 Moore ME, Hiday VA: Mental health court outcomes: a comparison of re-arrest and re-arrest severity between mental health court and traditional court participants. Law & Hum Behav 30:659–74, 2006