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City of Columbia v. Assa'ad-Faltas

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 21, 2017

City of Columbia, Respondent,
Marie-Therese Assa'ad-Faltas, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2015-000941

          Submitted February 15, 2017

         Appeal from Richland County Alison Renee Lee, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender John H. Strom, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Bruce H. Greenberg, Jr., of Columbia, for Respondent.

          PER CURIAM:

         In this direct appeal, Appellant Marie-Therese Assa'ad-Faltas appeals her simple assault conviction and sentence, arguing her right to self-representation was violated and that she is entitled to a new trial in which she represents herself. For many years, Appellant has engaged in a pattern of frivolous filings and inappropriate conduct towards the courts, court officers, and court employees of this State. Appellant's abuse of the justice system has even reached the United States Supreme Court. See Assa'ad-Faltas v. Richland Cnty. Sheriff's Dept., 135 S.Ct. 1418 (2015) (noting Dr. Faltas has "repeatedly abused" the United States Supreme Court's process). Appellant's unrelenting inappropriate conduct in the South Carolina courts necessitated that certain restrictions be placed upon Appellant's pro se access to the courts to curb her abuse of the judicial process. In light of this and after carefully considering the facts of this case, for the reasons that follow, we affirm Appellant's conviction and sentence.


         Appellant was charged with simple assault following a September 11, 2009 confrontation with her then-landlord ("Landlord"), who had previously been a target of Appellant's unrelenting litigiousness and harassment.[1] Earlier that month, Landlord notified Appellant that a routine property inspection would take place under the terms of the lease; Appellant objected to the proposed date for the inspection and it was rescheduled; however, Appellant objected to the second proposed date as well and thereafter typed up a notice protesting Landlord's entry into her apartment on the rescheduled day and time.[2] Appellant mailed a copy of this objection to Landlord (and faxed a copy to Landlord's attorney), but Appellant nevertheless was concerned Landlord would deny receiving it; Appellant testified she therefore felt compelled also to personally hand-deliver a copy of her objections to Landlord.

         On the day of the confrontation, Landlord had come to the apartments to perform some maintenance outside of one of the buildings; as Landlord was working, she spotted Appellant coming towards her with a piece of paper in her hand. Landlord previously was advised by her attorney not to accept any paperwork from Appellant and to insist that Appellant provide any and all paperwork to Landlord's attorney; accordingly, without even knowing what the papers were, Landlord began backing away and instructed Appellant to leave her alone and to take the documents to the attorney.

         Appellant admitted Landlord instructed her to "go away" and that she disregarded that request; however, Appellant contends she merely touched the papers to Landlord's hand and the papers thereafter fell to the ground. In contrast, both Landlord and an eyewitness testified that Appellant repeatedly and forcefully shoved the papers into Landlord's chest and stated in a loud, hostile manner "You got it! You got it!" Landlord immediately called the police. Appellant was charged with simple assault by way of a courtesy summons.


         The legal issues before the Court involve Appellant's Sixth Amendment right to self-representation described in Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). Because the right to proceed pro se as a criminal defendant is not absolute and may be forfeited where a litigant repeatedly abuses the judicial process, Appellant's history of inappropriate conduct informs our analysis of this case. See Cochran v. Morris, 73 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1996) (finding "a plaintiff's past litigious conduct should inform a [] court's" determination of whether a claim is frivolous and thus abusive of the judicial process (emphasis added)) (citing In re McDonald, 489 U.S. 180, 184 (1989)). Accordingly, we first summarize some of Appellant's past litigious conduct before exploring the procedural history of this specific case.

         Over the last twenty years, Appellant has engaged in a pattern of vexatious and disruptive conduct aimed at courts throughout South Carolina and beyond. See, e.g., Assa'ad-Faltas v. Carter, No. 1:14CV678, 2014 WL 4566037, at *4-5, *9 (M.D. N.C. Sept. 15, 2014) (listing numerous judicial decisions which "show that [Appellant] repeatedly has abused the litigation process[, ] both in state and federal courts" and finding the specific claims before that court to be "legally frivolous and malicious"). Since 1997, Appellant has been involved in fifty-two matters before this Court and twenty-one matters before the court of appeals, the vast majority of which Appellant has initiated and which have been found to be without merit or frivolous.

         During Appellant's attendance at a January 2011 oral argument before this Court in a matter to which Appellant was not a party, Appellant stood and attempted to address the Court to offer her opinion on how the case should be resolved. Additionally, Appellant has pursued and approached individual members of this Court and other Court personnel in non-public areas of the Courthouse, in the Courthouse parking lot, at a hotel in Columbia, and even during a worship service at a local church, all in various attempts to raise legal arguments or discuss pending litigation matters. Her unrelenting efforts to contact and harass individual (current and former) Justices of this Court have resulted in members of this Court recusing themselves from all matters involving Appellant.

         Additionally, Appellant repeatedly submits an overwhelming volume of written documents, either seeking special privileges, requesting that this Court intervene in matters which are outside our appellate jurisdiction, or addressing matters which are altogether non-justiciable. During the last six months, Appellant has requested that this Court grant her permission to sit for either the July 2017 or February 2018 bar examination without paying an application fee or obtaining a law school degree; she has asked to be appointed the Director of South Carolina Court Administration to implement an initiative applying scientific principles to the administration of justice; she has forwarded to this Court her ideas for how Congress could repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act;[3] and she has asked this Court to make a public show of support for Coptic Christians in Egypt in the wake of recent violent attacks targeting the religious group. These matters are typical of Appellant's frequent submissions which fall well outside this Court's purview; however, the extensive time and effort the Court and its staff must expend to ensure each of Appellant's countless submissions is given fair and meaningful consideration to determine what Court action, if any, is necessary results in diversion of limited judicial resources away from the many other complex and important matters pending before this Court.

         However, Appellant's abuse of the judicial process is not limited to our appellate courts. Appellant has also persistently engaged in disruptive and inappropriate conduct in state circuit courts such that her physical access to the Richland County Courthouse was restricted based on findings by the circuit court:

I find that [Appellant] is in the Richland County Courthouse on an almost daily basis, that she is insulting and demanding to personnel in the Clerk of Court's office, that she is a constant irritant to the Solicitor's office, that she has been banned from the Solicitor's office for disruptive behavior and has had to be escorted from that office by law enforcement, that she has harassed individual solicitors by following them around the courthouse, that she constantly calls the office of the undersigned to the point that I have had to post her phone numbers on office phones with instructions to my staff not to answer incoming calls from her numbers, that she appears in courtrooms and attempts to have ex parte conversations with sitting judges involved in other cases, and that the security forces at the Richland County Courthouse have advised the undersigned that [Appellant] is a constant nuisance to the orderly oversight of activity in a very busy courthouse. Even the Public Defender's office has had to deal with [Appellant] loitering at or near the entrance to that office.
It is fair to say that no other criminal defendant in Richland County has been treated with such consideration as [Appellant]. In response, [Appellant] has treated this Court and courthouse personnel with rudeness, incivility[, ] and constant harassment. . . . The people's business must be conducted in an orderly and unencumbered manner. [Appellant] has created an obstruction to this process.

         Subsequently, this Court received reports that Appellant thereafter attended circuit court proceedings in which she was not involved and disruptively held up placards in an attempt to convey her objections to the proceedings.

         In an effort to restrict Appellant from engaging in such inappropriate conduct, this Court issued an order on December 23, 2009, prohibiting Appellant from filing anything with this Court unless it is signed and filed by an attorney.[4] Thereafter, in April 2011, the Court expanded that prohibition to preclude Appellant from filing anything in any court of this state in a pro se capacity based on Appellant's persistent disregard for and abuse of the judicial process. In response to Appellant's repeated attempts to circumvent this Court's orders, including a series of emails Appellant sent to judges and law clerks about pending litigation, on October 24, 2012, then-Chief Justice Toal issued an order expressly prohibiting Appellant from contacting "any judge, justice, law clerk, clerk of court or any other officer or employee of the Judicial System by telephone, e-mail or any other form of electronic communication."

         Although this Court subsequently decided to modify its restrictions and prospectively permit Appellant to proceed pro se in criminal actions in which she is a defendant, the Court nevertheless cautioned in November 2013 and again in January 2014 that the right to defend pro se in a criminal trial is not absolute and may be forfeited "if [Appellant] is unable or unwilling to abide by the rules of procedure and courtroom protocol."[5]

         Quite frankly, this Court's efforts have not been successful. To the contrary, in the time since our initial December 23, 2009 order attempting to curtail Appellant's inappropriate conduct, the number and frequency of Appellant's meritless filings and inappropriate behaviors has increased rather than decreased. Since December 23, 2009, Appellant has filed (or attempted to file) pro se with this Court thirty-one appeals and petitions for extraordinary writs, [6] 103 motions and supplemental motions, and sixty-one other items of correspondence, in addition to countless phone calls and emails to court staff (notwithstanding this Court's order expressly forbidding such contact). Moreover, since January 2014, Appellant has visited this Courthouse more than thirty times despite the fact that no hearing or oral argument was scheduled in any matter involving her. In short, Appellant's conduct and the overwhelming number of documents and exhibits she submits constitute a gross abuse of the justice system. Although this Court has found it necessary to take steps to curb Appellant's aggressive pro se litigiousness as part of our "'responsibility [] to see that resources are allocated in a way that promotes the interests of justice, '" Assaad-Faltas v. University of S.C., 971 F.Supp. 985, 991 (D.S.C. 1997) (quoting In re McDonald, 489 U.S. 180, 184 (1989)), Appellant persists unabated in her "'frivolous demands on the Court's limited resources.'" Martin v. District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 506 U.S. 1, 2 (1992) (quoting Zatko v. California, 502 U.S. 16, 18 (1991)). With this history of Appellant's prolific inappropriate conduct in mind, we turn now to the procedural history of this specific case.


         In addition to the underlying assault charge, Appellant faced several other municipal court charges. It appears that in early 2013, Appellant was represented by attorney Theodore Lupton in five municipal court matters; however, due to Appellant's abusive and harassing behavior, Mr. Lupton moved to be relieved as counsel in February 2013. During the motion hearing before the circuit court, [7] Mr. Lupton explained:

From the beginning[, ] I have tried to work with her. She has been - you know, I feel that-that her conduct, starting with that first communication, has been abusive in terms of insult towards myself, insults towards those that are friends of mine, colleagues of ...

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