The legacy of Ivan Sawchyn provides unwanted decoration in Peter Hull's office. A half-dozen faded blue accordion folders, bursting with all manner of legal documents, line a shelf in the law director's space in Middleburg Heights City Hall. When Hull sits at his desk, the folders loom at eye level, a reminder of his old nemesis. As if he could forget.
During the past 16 years, Sawchyn never strayed far from Hull's thoughts, suing the city 14 times over assorted gripes, from access to public data to property disputes. Acting as his own attorney, he posted a perfect record, losing every case before he ever got to trial.
Still, his persistence carried a cost for Middleburg Heights. Hull estimates the city burned somewhere in the low six figures to beat back Sawchyn -- an estimate that doesn't include the countless hours Hull wasted. Nor do numbers fully measure the nuisance factor, for Sawchyn bombarded City Hall and media outlets with faxes, letters, and phone calls that savaged Hull and other public officials.
"Hull is absolutely the 'de facto' mayor and czar of this corrupt regime," Sawchyn wrote in a 1999 letter he also sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, Attorney General Janet Reno, and FBI chief Louis Freeh.
Taken collectively, Sawchyn's written rants suggest that, while he owns a home in Middleburg Heights, he lives in Victimhood. Despite a heart condition and a recent bout of pneumonia, he's apparently always well enough to feel aggrieved, suing over matters that Judge Judy would find too lame to hear. Even his string of defeats, rather than discouraging him, only seems to have fed a conviction that city officials want to run him down.
"The most difficult thing," Hull says, "has been [that] you don't know if people actually believe what he's telling them."
In discussing his longtime foe, Hull wears the look of someone who's caught a whiff of rotting carp. His expression might be more pained, except these days he's able to talk about Sawchyn in the past tense. No, the feisty codger isn't dead; he just can't sue the city anymore.
A Cuyahoga County common pleas judge has branded Sawchyn a vexatious litigator, under a rarely invoked state law. It allows courts to bar a person from suing on the grounds that he's already sued too many times without just cause. Judge Richard McMonagle's decision plunged Sawchyn into dubious company, making him one of only 18 vexatious litigators in Ohio.
Hull had sought the ruling since 1999 when, tired of being on the receiving end, he sued Sawchyn. After a judge ruled against Hull in 2000, he won on appeal late last year. Now the lawyer -- who last spoke to Sawchyn in 1988, hanging up on him after a phone conversation overheated -- likes to believe the faded blue folders will gather dust.
"It's a huge relief to have this ruling. It's been 16 years of frustration and unnecessary bad feelings, and an enormous waste of time."
Sawchyn declines to talk at length about his legal pariah status, past lawsuits, or anything else, refusing to reveal so much as his age. He does, however, heap blame on Hull for McMonagle's decision. "It's a means of revenge on the part of judges and public officials. It's all politics."
Court documents show Sawchyn has earned a living as a landlord and small business owner while dabbling in real estate. But it appears he found his true calling in dragging people to court.
Beginning in the early 1980s, he sued some three dozen private citizens, businesses, and public entities. Among his targets: the cities of Parma Heights and Cleveland Heights, Cleveland Municipal Court, the Berea Board of Education, National City Bank, and Women's Federal Savings Bank. He never won.
Sawchyn first sued Middleburg Heights in 1986, charging that Hull refused to divulge details about the city's liability insurance. A summary judgment in favor of the city did nothing to deter Sawchyn from bringing other suits. In one, he sued four city council members for $1.5 million for "failing to carry out the mandate of their office," when they spurned his rezoning request; he asked for an additional $400 to cover his "time, expertise, and research rendered in filing this lawsuit." In another, he sought a judgment of $9,900 to cover repairs he made on his home, claiming city inspectors overlooked structural flaws when it was built -- in 1954.
Unbowed by a lack of legal training, Sawchyn used a typewriter to draw up his own court complaints and affidavits. The documents, laced with misspellings, scratch-outs, and clauses in all capital letters, seem a form of legal buckshot, spraying allegations in every direction. In a suit over another rezoning flap, he accused Hull, the mayor, city council members, and others with "INTENTIONAL AND WRECKLESS INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS on the Plaintiff." He wanted $2.3 million to soothe his nerves.
Sawchyn has managed to get numerous court hearings, benefiting from the tenets of due process -- and judges taking pity on him, Hull says. "He's not a sophisticated man, but he's not a stupid man, either. He came across as just a somewhat confused average citizen."
Outside court, Sawchyn shed his sheepskin, judging from the tone of his frequent faxes to "the whole damn crooked bunch" at City Hall. Mixing profanity with Christianity in one screed, he wrote, "Your [sic] probably getting your jollies off from the screwing and fucking you just gave me but God will judge you." He often singled out Hull, vilifying him as a "pathological liar" who "criminally defrauded me of thousands of dollars."
And when his legal and letter-writing crusades failed, Sawchyn entered the final frontier of impotent rage: politics. Dubbing himself "The Honest Candidate," he ran for numerous city offices. He lost every race.
"He's a couple french fries short of a Happy Meal," City Councilman Tim Ali says. "You can never make him happy."
Hull decided to counterpunch three years ago, after Sawchyn violated a consensual agreement to stop suing the city. Under the vexatious litigator statute, Sawchyn can no longer take legal action without the court's permission.
"The law was a godsend, because there are people like Ivan Sawchyn who can create havoc in the legal system," Hull says. "I'm happy for all the people he won't be able to sue and cause damage to."
State lawmakers created the statute in 1997, in response to the antics of Lonny Lee Bristow, an inmate who sometimes signed documents "Sue-per-man" and sued hundreds of judges, cops, and public officials who knew nothing of him, alleging they had conspired to keep him in prison. His cases cost the state more than $100,000.
Other vexatious litigators gained the label not for the number of suits they filed, but for their frivolous, sometimes bizarre allegations. Linda Wallace, formerly of Rocky River, twice sued the city for $1 trillion, claiming in one case that officials had insulted her son. Hamilton County resident Iduna Borger sued her mother for allegedly belonging to a shadowy conspiracy movement called Nemesis, whose members she accused of murdering her child.
Legal observers regard the law as a needed check on a sue-happy culture. Susan Becker, an associate law professor at Cleveland State University, knows of suits in which people sued God or Satan -- cases that, she dryly notes, "make it a real problem to collect a judgment."
Adds Robert Lawry, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University: "For some people, suing somebody is their answer to everything."
Sawchyn might have avoided his vexatious fate if he simply had hired a lawyer. He insists he tried, but says no attorneys would represent him, because they feared suing public officials. Now he sounds resigned to finally letting his ire go.
"What else can I do? I can't go around shooting all these people. It's just one of those things."