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What is abuse of process?

Abuse of process is the willful and intentional misuse of the legal process for a wrongful or unlawful purpose. Abuse of process can occur in a civil or criminal case. Often, abuse of process occurs when someone uses the Florida legal system to harass, intimidate, or otherwise harm another person rather than seeking a legitimate legal remedy.

Abuse of process might be present in the following scenarios:

  • Filing a frivolous lawsuit with no basis in fact or law
  • Using the threat of legal action to force someone to settle a dispute
  • Filing multiple lawsuits with the same claims against the same defendant
  • Continuing to pursue a lawsuit even after the court determines that the lawsuit lacks merit

If someone engages in abuse of process, they may be subject to legal penalties such as monetary damages, sanctions, or even criminal charges in some cases. However, it’s important to note that not every misuse of the legal system constitutes abuse of process, and the specific circumstances of each case will ultimately determine whether abuse of process has occurred.

For example, assume Party A and Party B dispute the terms of a business contract. Party A is upset and decides to file a lawsuit against Party B, even though he knows he has no legal basis for the claims he is making. Party A’s lawsuit is frivolous and cannot succeed in court. However, Party A continues to pursue the lawsuit to pressure Party B and force them to settle the dispute on unfavorable terms.

In this scenario, Party A’s conduct is likely an abuse of process because he is misusing the legal system to harass and intimidate Part B rather than using the process for the purpose it was designed by seeking a legitimate legal remedy. If Party B can prove Party A’s conduct was willful and intentional, it may be possible to bring a claim against Party A for damages and remedies.

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What legal issues typically arise related to abuse of process?

The following disputes most commonly implicate abuse of process claims:

  • Malicious prosecution: This occurs when someone initiates a legal action without probable cause, with malice, and without a reasonable belief that the lawsuit will succeed. The defendant must prove that the plaintiff acted maliciously and filed the lawsuit without probable cause.
  • Frivolous litigation: This occurs when a party brings a lawsuit with no legal merit or for an improper purpose, such as to harass or intimidate the defendant. In Florida, the party who files a frivolous lawsuit may be sanctioned by the court and required to pay the opposing party’s attorney fees.
  • Improper use of legal process: This involves improperly using legal processes to gain an unfair advantage in a dispute. Unfair advantages include using the legal system to intimidate or harass an opponent or to gain an advantage in a business or personal conflict.

What are relevant laws related to abuse of process in Florida?

Florida common law, which refers to legal principles developed over time by courts through their decisions in various cases, guides what constitutes an abuse of process and the remedies that may be available to a victim of such abuse. In addition, the Florida Statutes, under Section 57.105, provides for awarding attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party in a civil lawsuit if the court finds that the losing party knew or should have known the lawsuit was frivolous, groundless or unsupported by the facts.

What is required to prove a case of abuse of process in Florida?

To prove a case of abuse of process in Florida, a plaintiff must typically show the following elements:

  • Illegal or improper use of the legal process by Defendant: The plaintiff must prove the defendant did not simply use the process to further justice or get a legal remedy.
  • An ulterior motive or purpose in exercising the illegal or improper process: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant intended to harass or intimidate him or gain some advantage in a matter unrelated to the legal process.
  • Damages to the plaintiff as a result: The plaintiff must prove he suffered economic harm, emotional distress, a damaged reputation, or some other kind of damage due to the abuse of the legal process.

When a set of facts is appropriate to meet the requirements of Abuse of Process, there are many paths a claimant may take. We are value-based attorneys at Jimerson Birr, which means we look at each action with our clients from the point of view of costs and benefits while reducing liability. Then, based on our client’s objectives, we chart a path forward to seek appropriate remedies.

To see what actions may be available for your unique situation, please contact our office to set up your initial consultation.

What are common defenses to abuse of process in Florida?

The primary defenses to abuse of process in Florida include:

  • Good faith: If the defendant can show he used the legal process properly for a legitimate purpose, there can be no abuse of process claim.
  • Immunity: There is absolute immunity for an act that is required or permitted by law during a judicial proceeding, even if that act is an alleged abuse of process.
  • Litigation privilege: Claims for abuse of process based on the defendant raising an unauthorized defense are barred.
  • First Amendment protections: If the defendant acted through the exercise of their First Amendment rights, such as free speech or the right to petition the government, this could be a defense against an abuse of process claim.

One core strategy for defending against an abuse of process claim is to disprove any ulterior motive or that any alleged abuse of process resulted in damages. For example, if the defendant can show he truly believed he had a case and did not act with an intent to harm the plaintiff, then there could be no abuse of process claim. Similarly, if the defendant shows that the plaintiff was never actually harmed by the alleged abuse of process, there would be no claim. At the very least, such a showing would dramatically reduce available damages.

To see what defenses may be available for your unique situation, please contact our office to set up your initial consultation.

Have more questions about an abuse of process-related situation?

Crucially, this overview of abuse of process does not begin to cover all the laws implicated by this issue or the factors that may compel the application of such laws. Every case is unique, and the laws can produce different outcomes depending on the individual circumstances.

Jimerson Birr attorneys guide our clients to help make informed decisions while ensuring their rights are respected and protected. Our lawyers are highly trained and experienced in the nuances of the law, so they can accurately interpret statutes and case law and holistically prepare individuals or companies for their legal endeavors. Through this intense personal investment and advocacy, our lawyers will help resolve the issue’s complicated legal problems efficiently and effectively.

Having a Jimerson Birr attorney on your side means securing a team of seasoned, multi-dimensional, cross-functional legal professionals. Whether it is a transaction, an operational issue, a regulatory challenge, or a contested legal predicament that may require court intervention, we remain a tireless advocate every step of the way. Being a value-added law firm means putting the client at the forefront of everything we do. We use our experience to help our clients navigate even the most complex problems and come out the other side triumphant.

If you want to understand your case, the merits of your claim or defense, potential monetary awards, or the amount of exposure you face, you should speak with a qualified Jimerson Birr lawyer. Our experienced team of attorneys is here to help. Call Jimerson Birr at (904) 389-0050 or use the contact form to set up a consultation.

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