Dealing with false allegations
“How can they do that?”
The most frustrating part of litigation is also the most difficult thing for attorneys to deal with or explain: how one party can behave unfairly and “get away with it.” There are several explanations, none of which are completely satisfactory.
Perspective & biases
Contested lawsuits are by nature a clash of two different perspectives or versions of events. A simplistic analogy is the classic question: Is the glass half-empty or is it half-full? Our language and culture contains so many inherent ambiguities that a single event witnessed by two people can be honestly perceived and described very differently simply by different word choices. The gap between two perspectives widens when one side is dishonest or has a mental health issue. For example, in a case of physical violence, an attacker may insist that they are a victim if they cannot recognize due to dishonesty or mental illness that they were the aggressor and that the true “victim” was merely acting in self-defense.
Humans naturally develop and hold biases which shape our worldviews and sometimes lead to different perspectives and even disputes about the reasons for and consequences of an act or event. Psychological projection is a concept describing a person who accuses others of an attitude or behavior of which the accuser is actually guilty but denies. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude while denying being rude themselves. This is also called blame shifting.
Burden of proof
A person who makes a legal claim or allegation has an obligation to produce evidence that their contention is right. The burden of proof comes with a risk – a risk of nonpersuasion. It can seem very unfair to have a mountain of uncontroversial, independent evidence supporting one’s claim then learn that the other side has filed a response denying everything. For an extreme example of our system’s burden of proof requirement, consider the trial of a mass shooter. The shooter may be videoed at the site of the shooting firing a weapon and identified by surviving victims as the shooter, but if the shooter enters a plea of “not guilty,” a trial is required and the government must prove the shooter’s guilt at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. In every kind of case, our system requires evidentiary proof at trial.
The standard for bringing legal claims and allegations is very low
Article 2, section 6 of the Bill of Rights embodied in the Oklahoma Constitution states, “The courts of justice of the State shall be open to every person, and speedy and certain remedy afforded for every wrong and for every injury to person, property, or reputation; and right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, delay, or prejudice.” The legal standard for filing a lawsuit is “probable cause.” Probable cause to file a lawsuit is present if the facts and circumstances known are such as to justify a person of prudence and caution to reasonably believe that the action of filing the lawsuit is justified by the law.
Rule 11 sanctions
The law says that by presenting to the court a document containing allegations, the attorney or unrepresented person is certifying that:
1. It is not being presented for any improper or frivolous purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation;
2. The claims, defenses and other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;
3. The allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and
4. The denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.
The law provides that when those certifications are violated, the attorney or party may be sanctioned by the court.
Rule 11 sanctions are extremely rare. In the very unusual event that one side is accused of sanctionable behavior due to a false statement or claim, that same rule gives the accused 21 days to correct the challenged claim.
We encourage our clients to be proactive and work with us to disclose evidence as early as possible. Oklahoma law expressly and implicitly encourages disclosure of discovery and evidence. Okla. Stat. tit. 12 § 3226 requires initial disclosures for computation of damages. Okla. Stat. tit. 43 § 110 requires basic financial disclosures to be exchanged without either party even requesting the information. Okla. Stat. tit. 43 § 118.3 provides that either party may request the other party’s previous tax year W-2 forms, 1099 form, or their wage and tax information, and upon receiving such a written request the information is to be provided within ten days. Okla. Stat. tit. 12 § 2403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded on grounds of unfair and game-playing surprise – suggesting that game-playing and hiding evidence is disfavored. Disclosure of discovery, relevant information and evidence facilitates negotiation and case resolution, and it is encouraged throughout the law. It may not seem fair when we have disclosed evidence and issued discovery requests, and, as a hearing approaches, the other side refuses to answer discovery or produce their evidence. However, for us to benefit from the rules concerning disclosure of evidence, we must act appropriately, even when the other side does not. More often than not, the payoff is a successful outcome for our clients.
The answer is to plan and prepare for trial
When you need make a claim in court, you need a trial lawyer who can help you present your evidence in a persuasive, winning way. If you have been falsely accused, you can benefit from the advice and assistance of an experienced trial lawyer to prepare a strong defense and show the falsity of the accusation in court.
Unfortunately, sometimes winning at trial cannot completely remove the bad taste of the horrible experience resulting from the loser’s false pretrial statements and allegations. Therapy and the passage of time may help individuals deal with the experience and fallout resulting from high-conflict legal disputes.