Grace Sandoval was too busy to talk.
Reached by phone, she was at Kinkos, Downtown, making copies for a federal lawsuit she was about to file, her 87th lawsuit in the last year.
“I first went into the small-claims court,” she explained later. “The lawsuits I have are just to cover everything that I lost. They broke the window in my car and stole my suitcase when I was moving. I've not been able to get any money.”
Who “they” are and what's really happened to Sandoval isn't fully known. Her complaints are long, usually 30 to 40 pages, and often rambling. Some are handwritten, others are typed in all capital letters. They reference everything from O.J. Simpson to Elvis Presley to the role she believes she played in The Wizard of Oz in 1979.
Her car, a 2002 Honda Civic, comes up frequently. She told CityBeat that it's repeatedly vandalized by a group of criminals, a claim that made it into a legitimate bankruptcy filing prepared for her by a lawyer in 2004. Under cause of action, she usually checks the boxes for motor-vehicle injury or organized crime.
Suits like Sandoval's are a consequence of a court system that gives everyone direct, and in most cases, easy access. Karen Dalton, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Superior Court, said Sandoval's suits are a burden on the court and the people and businesses she sues.
“Given the current load on the court's limited resources, this is a serious matter,” Dalton said.
Still, it took a while for someone to notice what Sandoval was doing. Between 2004 and 2006, she filed confused and often indecipherable complaints unabated against dozens of people.
Then, she started suing Superior Court judges and clerks.
A court attorney moved to have her added to a “vexatious litigants” list in late 2006, saying in an affidavit that her claims seemed delusional and that one of her daughters told an investigator that Sandoval suffered from paranoid-type schizophrenia. Being placed on the vexatious litigant list can prevent a person from filing any more suits without the help of an attorney or permission from a judge. The idea comes with some controversy because it lets judges decide when someone's basic access to the courts should be cut off. Though almost every jurisdiction has a similar list or procedure, California is one of the few places where the list is written into law and where it applies only to people who represent themselves.
Dalton, though, said the list is necessary.
“Courts exist to enforce the rule of law and to resolve disputes. If the court is used as a forum where inappropriate, unsubstantiated, frivolous and meritless issues are allowed to be pursued at will, then public support for the judicial branch will be lost,” she said.
After Sandoval was placed on the list, she took a year-long break from filing suits. She started again in 2008 and managed to file nearly 150 more cases in small claims court by the beginning of 2009. Most were dismissed almost immediately.
Then there's federal court. Sandoval started filing lawsuits there in late 2008, and at last count, her tally was up to 87. More than once, she's been threatened with fines or contempt charges, but she persists. She said she's prepared a half-dozen more suits that haven't yet been filed.
One of her first federal suits last year named her daughter Corina as the defendant. The complaint, though, was a 36-page plea for the judge to help Corina, whom Sandoval believed was being held hostage by “heroin addicts” and other criminals.
It was the third time Sandoval had sued Corina. She's sued her oldest daughter, Priscella, as well.
Corina said she's offered to meet with her mother, to show her that's she's OK and that no one is holding her hostage or has done any of the other things Sandoval believes are happening, but it doesn't help.
“She's sent the police to my house so many times,” Corina told CityBeat.
Both daughters said they spent time in foster care growing up and that their mother spent some time in treatment at the Aretta Crowell Center, Downtown, about 10 years ago. There, with medication and therapy, she started to show signs of improvement. The delusions dissipated; she could hold a normal conversation, her daughters said.
But what happened next isn't clear. Court records show shifting addresses every few months starting around 2001. In one filing, Sandoval said she had to move several times in one year because people were breaking into her home and hurting her.
By 2004, she was struggling financially. According to a bankruptcy filing prepared for her by a lawyer, expenses had overwhelmed her income. Rent was $650. The car, with insurance, topped out at almost $500. She had thousands in credit card and student loan debt.
Then, the California Business Bureau, a collection agency working for Scripps Mercy Hospital, sued her. They said she owed nearly $4,000 in medical bills from a 2002 hospital stay for heart problems. Sandoval had health insurance, but it did little to protect her, paying just about 20 percent of total costs. The collection agency got a default judgment when Sandoval didn't respond and the bill ballooned to just under $5,500, with attorney fees and interest.
That suit was one of her first real experiences with the court system. Five months later, Sandoval filed two of her own suits, her first as a plaintiff. The next year, she filed a few more. The year after that, dozens. Today, she's nearing the 300 mark with no end, as far as she's concerned, in sight.
Sandoval is able to explain her lawsuits and what she believes has happened to her and her family but refuses to discuss her state of mind. Challenging her claims, like informing her that The Wizard of Oz was made before she was born or that her daughters say they're not in danger, seems to infuriate her.
“You're a part of this,” she said to a reporter. “And I need your last name, because I will file a complaint against you.”
What will happen to Sandoval now is an open question. The federal district court is more likely to take the same route as the state court and declare Sandoval a vexatious litigant, instead of levying the fines or contempt charges they've threatened. With the courts closed to her, it's difficult to say where she'll focus next.
Her daughters believe she needs more help, but without her cooperation, they're not sure she'll ever get it.
“My hands are tied,” Priscella said. “Unless she's suicidal or homicidal, nothing can be done.”
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