By Paul Kiefer
When a Washington state law intended to prevent abusive partners from using courts to harass or manipulate domestic violence survivors went into effect in early January, Isabelle Latour was one of the first people to try to put the new law to work. In doing so, she illustrated how difficult it may be for the law to efficiently protect survivors from a tactic known as “abusive litigation.”
Over four years, multiple King County judges ruled on dozens of occasions that Latour’s ex-husband, a Seattle attorney, had used frivolous lawsuits, unfounded complaints about Latour and her attorney, a questionable bankruptcy claim and dozens of other motions filed across multiple courts to drag out their divorce and maintain a form of control over Latour. The endless stream of litigation forced Latour to spend countless hours and thousands of dollars battling her ex’s efforts to re-litigate their divorce.
“After surviving a lot of abuse, I got pulled onto Zoom call after Zoom call—it became like a second job,” she said. “It was a heavy cloud hanging over me. I wanted to move on with my life, but I had to keep revisiting my trauma.”
When state Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island) began drafting legislation targeting abusive litigation for the state legislature’s 2019-2020 session, Latour and other survivors provided input. A version of the legislation that passed in 2020 empowered judges to limit an abuser’s ability to file or continue litigation against their victim; it also required the abuser to pay the court and attorneys’ fees. A court can only impose those restrictions on someone who a court has previously found to have committed domestic violence, and the restrictions expire after four to six years.
But the law’s impact depends on survivors, who need to petition a judge to consider whether to impose restrictions on their abuser’s rights to file litigation.
Because of the fragmented nature of Washington’s superior court system, it’s difficult to know how many survivors have tried to use the law so far. Of the half-dozen attorneys who spoke with PubliCola, only Latour’s attorney—Karma Zaike—has represented a client who successfully petitioned a court to stop their abuser from filing new litigation.
By the time the law went into effect on January 1, 2021, Latour believed that her motion to stop her ex-husband’s litigation would be an open-and-shut case. Zaike was so confident that a judge would approve Latour’s request that she tried to schedule a hearing on January 4.
Instead, Latour struggled to find a judge to hear her case; then, once she landed before King County Superior Court Judge Johana Bender, she endured four more hearings over Zoom. According to Latour and Zaike, the new hearings gave Latour’s ex additional opportunities to denounce his ex-wife and her attorney with allegations of dishonesty, and to argue that his lengthy history as a litigant was justified.
Latour’s ex-husband did not respond when PubliCola attempted to contact him.
Because restricting someone’s right to file litigation is a serious imposition by a court, judges like Bender often allow an accused abuser to argue their case at length before deciding whether to issue an anti-abusive litigation order. “A lot of abusers are very persistent—they won’t give up easily,” said Antoinette Bonsignore, an attorney who volunteers with Seattle-based women’s rights group Legal Voice who has advocated for protections against abusive litigation.