‘Sophisticated’ spam-call plaintiff gets smacked for his own gamesmanship

(Reuters) – Christopher Laccinole is no ordinary pro se plaintiff.

Laccinole, a US Naval Academy graduate who now works for the US Department of Veterans Affairs in Rhode Island, has filed more than 100 lawsuits on his own behalf, mostly alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. He favors state court, he said in a 2021 deposition, but has litigated dozens of cases in federal court after defendants have removed his suits.

Based on Laccinole filings I’ve read, he is not only well-versed in precedent addressing the federal anti-robocall law and constitutional standing but has also clearly studied the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Since 2014, federal judges in Rhode Island have noted Laccinole’s sophistication as a litigator.

That sophistication turned into a liability in a decision this week granting summary judgment to the International Union of Police Associations AFL-CIO in one of Laccinole’s robocall cases.

US District Judge John McConnell of Providence, Rhode Island, ruled that Laccinole cannot pursue his claims of receiving unwanted spam calls from the police union because he actually invited the calls by purchasing cheap, pre-paid mobile phones that he uses only to field robocalls.

McConnell based his ruling, of course, on the record in the case – and that is where Laccinole’s gamesmanship as a litigator failed him. Because of his strategic decisions, the record in the police union case consisted mainly of a deposition Laccinole gave in a different robocall case. In that testimony, he said that he has bought at least a dozen burner phones in the last few years, swapping in new phone numbers when his bare-bones call plans run out. Laccinole said he does not use the burners as personal or business phones and that he purchased a home recording system to tape the calls that come in to those phone lines. His motive, he said, is to enforce the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The police union’s counsel from The Bernhoft Law Firm and Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith argued in their motion for summary judgment that the deposition – as well as Laccinole’s extensive litigation record – proves that he is running a robocall litigation business, luring spam calls in order to file TCPA cases that will net him quick settlements. (The union’s brief does not say how much money Laccinole has allegedly earned from his robocall cases.)

I called Laccinole on the cell phone line that he testified he gives to friends. He declined to comment. Union counsel Daniel Treuden of Bernhoft did not respond to my email.

Laccinole is not the first plaintiff to seize on that litigation opportunity – nor the first to be called out by a defendant for it. You may recall a 2016 ruling, Stoops v. Wells Fargo Bank NA, in which a Pennsylvania federal judge concluded that a plaintiff who admitted to buying burner phones expressly to attract robocalls did not have Article III standing because her privacy was not invaded. (I’m summarizing a more nuanced decision, but that is its gist.) In Laccinole’s case, the union relied heavily on analysis from the Stoops decision, which has been widely adopted by other trial courts.

Laccinole’s response was a downpour of procedural challenges.

He claimed that his case must be remanded to state court, where it was originally filed, because the union’s summary judgment motion amounted to a concession that the federal court does not have jurisdiction because he does not have standing. He argued that his deposition testimony from the previous case – which, remember, was the basis of the union’s summary judgment case – must be excluded. He sought to force the union defense lawyer who signed a declaration attesting to the accuracy of the deposition to testify because that lawyer was not at the deposition. (The union said Laccinole’s suggestion that its lawyer had perjured himself was “scandalous,” and called his motions “frivolous and time-consuming gripes [that] could be disposed of on rules-violating grounds.”)

Laccinole also contended that the union had conceded his arguments by failing to respond in a timely manner to the requests for admissions he served with his state-court complaint, insisting that the defense’s purported failure doomed its summary judgment motion. In the alternative, he asked for additional discovery on the requests. (The union noted in its response that federal trial judges have already rejected previous Laccinole “tricks” and “discovery gamesmanship.”)

McConnell rejected all of Laccinole’s maneuvers, noting, among other things, that the police union did respond to his requests for admissions after the lawsuit was removed to federal court. Any argument that the union waited too long, the judge said, should have been raised in response to the answer, not in Laccinole’s summary judgment opposition. The judge also said that Laccinole cannot now claim that he needs discovery based on the union’s answers to his requests for admission because he could have sought that discovery before the summary judgment briefing.

Laccinole, McConnell said, simply is not entitled to the procedural leeway typically afforded to pro se plaintiffs. “While he may not have graduated law school or passed the bar exam, he is far more sophisticated in matters of litigation than many new practitioners who do not get the benefit of the court’s dispensation of sticking strictly to the rules,” the judge wrote.

Laccinole made “a strategic litigation decision not to take discovery to delay the case or force a settlement in lieu of discovery,” the judge said. So now he is “hoisted with his own petard.”

The union pointed out in its brief replying to Laccinole’s summary judgment opposition arguments that Rhode Island judges have seen so many of his pro se suits that the courts now have an informal “Laccinole Rule” against his arguments that defendants must respond to state-court requests for admission within 30 days even if cases are removed to federal court. It’s time, the union said, to shut down the pro se plaintiff’s game.

McConnell seems to have agreed.

‘Professional’ robocall plaintiffs and the ‘zone of interest’ defense

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Alison Frankel

Thomson Reuters

Alison Frankel has covered high-stakes commercial litigation as a columnist for Reuters since 2011. A Dartmouth college graduate, she has worked as a journalist in New York covering the legal industry and the law for more than three decades. Before joining Reuters, she was a writer and editor at The American Lawyer. Frankel is the author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin.

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