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The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog

Court of Appeals Upholds Sanctions Against Attorney who Filed Suit Against her Opponent in a Primary race for the Commonwealth's Attorney of Norfolk

It seems that it's not just in national politics that sore losers turn to the courts to seek some redress for an election loss. Amina Matheny-Willard ran against Ramin Fatehi in the Democratic primary for Commonwealth's Attorney for Norfolk in 2021. Only about 15,000 votes were cast and Matheny-Willard finished a distant third. Fatehi was unopposed in the general election.

In 2023, Matheny-Willard posted on social media that she was starting her campaign for the 2025 election and needed plaintiffs "to file a document in order to hold the

Commonwealth’s Attorney accountable." The document she filed was a complaint under Code § 48-1 seeking to empanel a special grand jury to investigate a public nuisance. She alleged that the nuisance was that Fatehi has "failed to (1) timely disclose Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), materials to defense counsel, (2) prepare adequately for trials, (3) prosecute wrongdoers competently, and (4) keep victims and witnesses informed of proceedings pursuant to Code § 19.2-11.01." Fatehi moved to dismiss on the ground that the allegations did not constitute a public nuisance. He also sought sanctions against Matheny-Willard for filing a frivilous lawsuit. The circuit court agreed and sanctioned Matheny-Willard $500.

This, we have Michael J. Muhammad, et al. v. Ramin Fatehi (February 20, 2024), the least controversial of the opinions released by the Court of Appeals on February 20 (see posts on the other two here and here). Muhammad was one of the requisite five citizens Matheny-Willard recruited to serve as plaintiffs in the suit.

Judge Ortiz, joined by Chief Judge Decker and Judge Fulton, makes short work of Matheny-Willard's claims that she had a good faith reason for believing the public nuisance law could be applied to the alleged lax performance of a public official and further that she was being sanctioned for "political motivation." With respect to the former, Matheny-Willard seems to argue that because there was no law or case expressly refuting her assertion that "maladministration" of a public official might be considered a nuisance, the court was required to assume that she must have had a good faith belief that the law might be extended to include such circumstances.

This argument turns the requirement of a good faith belief on its head. By Matheny-Willard's logic, you could have a "good faith belief" that the dog-catcher could take "stray" children to the pound because there was no statutory or case law that said he couldn't.

As to "political montivation" being a legitimate basis for filing a frivolous lawsuit, the Court states that "[t]he court system exists to hear legitimate legal disputes, not to air political disputes and grievances. It is not acceptable for Matheny-Willard—or any other litigant—to use the judiciary to promote political agendas and file frivolous pleadings—especially in connection with criminal indictments." Hear! Hear!

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