Paul Weinbaum lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Although “las cruces” means “the crosses” in Spanish, Weinbaum believed the City and its public school district were violating the U. S. Constitution by depicting Christian crosses on their logos, buildings and vehicles. He therefore filed pro se lawsuits against the City and the Schools of Las Cruces. Last November, Weinbaum lost his case against the City (see Religion Clause weblog, Nov. 10, 2006) and, in December, 2006, he lost his case against the school district (see Religion Clause, Dec. 9, 2006). His appeal of the school case is pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Las Cruces school district is not waiting for the appeal to be finalized to make its next move. It has filed a motion asking for about $16,000 in legal fees from Weinbaum, claiming that the suit against the schools was clearly “frivolous,” once the City won its case. Las Cruces Sun-News, ”Crosses case may prove to be pricey,” Jan. 27, 2007 (click for LCPS motion to recover attorney’s fees and for Plaintiff’s response) The District says it actually spent $53,000 on legal fees defending Weinbaum’s charges, but is only asking for fees accrued after the City’s case was decided.
Without more information and research, I can’t have a clear opinion on whether it was frivolous for the plaintiff to continue his lawsuit once he lost the case against the City. (Remember, in legal terms, “frivolous” means without a colorable claim in fact or law.) It’s possible that different criteria might apply in the context of a school district (with young, impressionable minds) than for the City as a whole. The points mentioned in the Sun-News article as Mr. Weinbaum’s defense against the frivolousness claim do not, however, appear to hold much water:
- He told the Sun-News, ”We never asked for any money, which should be a sign,” the lawsuit is legitimate.
- He told the Court: “The pro se plaintiff (Weinbaum) never wanted his concerns to reach the legal system as he believed, perhaps naively so, that the defendants would be open to ideas about equality this being the 21st century, they being elected individuals who swore an oath to obey constitutional laws.” and,
- According to the news article, he continued that “he was open to settling the case before trial, but attorneys for the district wanted an ‘all or nothing. resolution which forced him ‘against the “wall of no compromise”.’”
We’ll let you know whether Mr. Weinbaum has to pay the School District’s legal fees. If he does, it will be an important reminder that bringing a pro se lawsuit can be quite expensive, for defendant and plaintiff. Common sense, and a good understanding of the law and of your adversary, are needed when deciding to bring or to continue any lawsuit.