Counting the costs of the New Mexico wi-fi suit

We posted earlier about a court’s dismissal after five years of the suit by Santa Fe, N.M. resident Arthur Firstenberg against neighbor Raphaela Monribot, over his claims that her electronic devices were exacerbating his condition of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” Don’t miss George Johnson’s excellent New York Times write-up, which fills in many more details:

…I assumed the case would be quickly dismissed. Instead, in 2010, it entered the maze of hamster tubes that make up the judicial system.

…About a week ago, after the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, I stopped by the office of Ms. Monribot’s lawyer, Christopher Graeser, with a tape measure. The files for the case sat in boxes on a table. Piled together, the pages would reach more than six feet high.

Court costs, not counting lawyers’ fees, had come to almost $85,000, or more than $1,000 an inch. Because of what the court described as Mr. Firstenberg’s “inability to pay,” the bill went instead to Ms. Monribot’s landlord’s insurance company — as if someone had slipped on an icy sidewalk, or pretended to.

Mr. Graeser and another lawyer, Joseph Romero, represented her pro bono, writing off an estimated $200,000 in legal fees.


  • The bill went to the landlord’s insurance company? This doesn’t make sense to me. I doubt she’s an “insured” under the landlord’s liability policy. There is probably a claim against the landlord too, or perhaps her lawyers filed some kind of third-party claim against them. Whatever the theory of negligence – it would seem that Monribot wouldn’t owe a duty to the plaintiff not to have or use electronic devices.

  • Courts should be more proactive in dismissing “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” related lawsuits early. Several groups have done double blind studies with people claiming “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”.

    The best one I have seen was one where participants along with an observer to record the participants reactions were exposed to four different test cases.

    1. Participant was exposed to EM fields and was aware that they were being exposed to EM fields.

    2. Participant was exposed to EM fields when they believed that they were not exposed.

    3. Participant believed that they were not exposed when they were exposed to EM fields

    4. Participant was not exposed and believed that they were not being exposed.

    The observer had no more information about which test case was which than the participant they were observing.

    The results were that participants nearly always showed symptoms for test cases 1 and 2 and almost never showed symptoms during test cases 3 and 4.

    Participants showed no skill in even determining if they were or were not being exposed.

  • This is an appalling case, and one which should bring shame upon the court system. That judges tolerated a person being put through the wringer on a case which has no merit is an indictment of that system.

    Can some kook keep me (or my guests) from using WiFi on my property–yes or no? That’s a question that should take 2 seconds to answer.

  • 85K in just court costs?

    While we wonder why courts don’t dismiss such lawsuits, the answer seems to be in the money figure that the court billed one party in this case because the other – the one who initiated the case to begin with – can’t pay the bill.

    What a scam. I can sue my neighbor and because the courts want the money to continue to operate, they bill the guy I am suing for all of the costs.

    Somehow that seems to be against the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. In what other occupation or endeavor can I create a debt and charge that debt off to another person?

    I would send the bill back to the courts – specifically the judge that let this thing linger – with a note saying “this one’s on you.”

    • I would send the bill back to the courts – specifically the judge that let this thing linger – with a note saying “this one’s on you.”

      A nice thought, but I don’t think they send the bill after the case is over. You probably had to pay a fee just to be able to file the motion to defend yourself. If you don’t pay, you might end up with a default judgement and an injunction to never use electronics in your house again. If you do pay, that’s never going to be refunded.

      But it’s totally ridiculous that a defendant who wins has to pay the court costs, and having the insurance company pay makes it no less ridiculous.

      Also, the plaintiff had an attorney. That attorney would stand to make money if the case won, right? How is it that HE is not required to pay the court costs if he is the one filing the motions?

      • David C.,

        I am not going to argue the point on sending the bill after the case was over. I just don’t know. But you have to admit that it seems odd that the court sent the bill to the defendant because the plaintiff could not pay the court costs.

        I agree with you that the plaintiff had an attorney at trial or hearings, but the plaintiff is acting on his own now and did so at the appeal and what the NY Times predicts is another appeal.

        Is the court going to bill the defendant for the filing costs of the second appeal as well?

        It almost seems as if a plaintiff can cause great harm to a defendant simply by filing and then claiming an inability to pay. (I consider $85K to be great harm to a private citizen, but that’s just me.)

        I guess part of what I am saying is that when a bill goes to a collection agency, the agency has to be able to prove that the debt was created by the person they are going after. Here, in this case, there doesn’t seem to be a dispute that the fees were not created by the defendant, yet they are being stuck with them. In the real world, the creditor (in this case the court itself) would face penalties. But because they are a court, they get a pass.

        Then again, if it were not for such ridiculous things like this, there would be no Overlawyered blog and we’d be elsewhere on the “snail farming” blog or something like that.

  • MattS, keep in mind that the plaintiff has been collecting SS disability from Uncle Sam for over 10 years, presumably for the phantom EMS disorder. It’s going to be awfully difficult for courts to summarily dismiss cases premised on a condition that our federal government appears to accept as legitimate.

    • Why? How does the “disability” imply a duty not to use a cellphone in one’s home?

      The defendant in this case is supposedly a free person. Yet she was subjected to a ridiculous lawsuit and forced to spend thousands. That don’t sound free to me.

      Let’s say I am a very attractive woman, and I garner lots of attention from men. Let’s say I turn down my next door neighbor’s request for a date, and he then sees me with lots of dates. Does he get to sue me for his anguish if it has a physical manifestation? Well, yes he gets to sue me, but that kind of suit should be dismissed, and if he was represented by counsel, counsel should be disbarred.

      Judges used to be the target of bogus lien filings. The reaction of the system was quick. Let them have to deal with financially ruining nonsense like this.

  • It’s a view from afar,(U.K actually) but I heartily go with SPO and David C.