United States v. Pendergraft
In United States v. Pendergraft, 297 F.3d 1198 (11th Cir. 2002), the defendant/doctor operated an abortion clinic in Marion County, Florida.
He sued the sheriff's department and the county, in federal court, alleging that they had violated certain laws by denying his request to hire off-duty police officers to protect the clinic.
The county asked the doctor to voluntarily dismiss it from the case, because it had not participated in the decision to disallow the request.
The doctor refused, and instead threatened to amend his complaint to add a count alleging that a county official had threatened violence against the clinic, in violation of federal law; and to seek actual and punitive damages and fees and costs for the violation.
The doctor then offered not to so amend his complaint if the county would pay a monetary settlement.
The doctor alleged that the threat of violence had been made in a telephone call that took place when his business partner and the county official were in negotiations (ultimately unsuccessful) to sell the clinic building.
In support, he furnished unsigned affidavits by those claiming to have personal knowledge that the county official had threatened violence in these calls. The doctor did so without knowing, however, that during the negotiations the FBI had been called in and had recorded the telephone calls.
The FBI recordings established conclusively that the county official had not made any threats whatsoever. Thus, the affidavits submitted by the doctor were demonstrably false.
The doctor was charged, inter alia, with extortion under the Hobbs Act. In essence, he was accused of using interstate commerce in an effort to "shake down" the county by threatening to sue it for damages (by amending his complaint), unless the county paid a settlement. The doctor was convicted.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed. It held that to prove extortion under the Hobbs Act the government must show that the defendant used, or attempted to use, a wrongful means to achieve a wrongful end.
The court determined that, although the government had proven that the doctor had sought to achieve a wrongful end (to get money he was not entitled to, given that the county official had not made the alleged threats of violence), it did not prove that he used a wrongful means. Specifically, the means the doctor threatened to use to pursue the money -- civil litigation -- was not wrongful. Therefore, the defendant's actions did not constitute extortion.
In so concluding, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that tort claims for abuse of process and malicious prosecution provide remedies for frivolous lawsuits.
It expressed particular hesitancy to extend criminal liability to a threat of litigation when a governmental entity was the target of the threat. This was so, the court reasoned, because "the right of citizens to petition their government for the redress of grievances is fundamental to our constitutional structure." Id. at 1207.