The process of having a filing fee waived for indigency is fairly automatic. If a person fills out the application form and shows they are below the state poverty level ($13,000 in annual income for a single person and $28,000 for a family of four), the fees are waived.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis, the presiding judge over the civil docket in Bridgeport, said she has indentified between six and 12 pro se litigants who have filed multiple lawsuits in her judicial district. Bellis said judges have little discretion on whether to approve a fee waiver, but they can always deny a claim brought by a self-represented party if it seems frivolous or doesn't make sense.
At the same time, she said, most judges "are not heavy-handed" when it comes to dismissing lawsuits that may seem farfetched. Many are reluctant to put pro se plaintiffs at a disadvantage when seeking redress from being wronged, Bellis said.
"If something is filed that is devoid of any merit, we have the authority to snuff it out on the spot," Bellis said. "It's rare that we do this, and it's done very cautiously. It's a big thing to do, to shut someone out of the court system."
Serial litigators include Judith Fusari of New Britain, who has received fee waivers for 136 lawsuits and 58 appeals, some of which have dragged on for three years. Fusari, for instance, sued a Hartford bar because she said her daughter's two friends were served allegedly poisoned drinks. She sued a store that allegedly wouldn't sell a friend a mortorized scooter used by disabled people. A judge warned Fusari that she lacked standing in that case, and that she could be sanctioned for practicing law without a license.
Then there's Sylvester Traylor of Waterford, who has brought several lawsuits using fee waivers, including one against state legislators and court officials. In dismissing one claim, Superior Court Judge Carl Schumann said Traylor's "litigious fervor … has clearly reached the point of becoming unnecessarly costly, wasteful and fruitless."
But Lebby has received the bulk of the recent publicity. Over the past seven years, she has filed lawsuits against Family Dollar, Walmart, Connecticut Light & Power and Target. She had one notable success; in 2010, she was paid a $7,500 settlement by the Stamford-based WWE.
Other than that, she has mostly met with defeat. In 2008, Lebby sued the Brett Michaels Fan Club for $22 million because she only received a Christmas card and no other benefits after paying membership dues; that case was dismissed. A lawyer who represented Michaels, the singer for the rock band Poison, said he didn't want to be named or quoted for this story. "She's sued me and filed a grievance against me before," the lawyer said, "and I don't want that to happen again."
The judges who encounter Lebby have been forced to move with care because Connecticut law requires them "to be solicitous of pro se litigants when it does not interfere with the rights of other parties." But the judges have not always been patient when considering her amateur legal work. Lebby's motions, filed by the pile, are often presented in handwritten scribble.
"The plaintiff's filings in new and pending cases have become so numerous and so regular," New Haven Superior Court Judge Patty Jenkins Pittman observed in 2010, "that substantial clerk and judge resources are devoted on an almost daily basis in attempting to sort out and respond to her frequent, vague and often illegible filings."