AskDefine | Define frivolous

Dictionary Definition

frivolous adj : not serious in content or attitude or behavior; "a frivolous novel"; "a frivolous remark"; "a frivolous young woman" [ant: serious]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. silly; especially at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate manner
    • "There is no easy definition for the phrase frivolous lawsuit,' but I imagine any claim for damages where the injuries are minimal or where the basis for the defendant's liability is hard to believe, might qualify as frivolous." — Paul F. Waldner, President-Elect, Houston Trial Lawyers Association, Viewpoints, Houston Chronicle, August 31, 1996 (citation)
    • "One of the major cost drivers in the delivery of health care are these junk and frivolous lawsuits." —

Derived terms


silly; especially at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate manner

Extensive Definition

Frivolous litigation, as used in colloquial and political terms in the United States, refers to lawsuits that are based on a theory that seems absurd, or where the claim results in damages that greatly exceed what one would expect from reading a brief summary of the case. Awards for medical malpractice are sometimes derided as frivolous (in this sense of meaning "excessive").
If a jury and a judge decided in favor of the plaintiff in such cases, the plaintiff's claim was not technically frivolous in legal terms, though it might be considered frivolous colloquially. Because of the ambiguity in the term, calling these lawsuits "frivolous" can lead to confusion because opposite sides of the tort reform debate can both say they oppose "frivolous" suits, with the tort reform supporters referring to the colloquial understanding, and tort reform opponents referring to the narrower technical definition.
The typical definition in United States law is very different from its colloquial or political meaning. United States courts usually define "frivolous litigation" as a legal claim or defense presented even though the party and the party's legal counsel had reason to know that the claim or defense had no merit. A claim or defense may be frivolous because it had no underlying justification in fact, or because it was not presented with an argument for a reasonable extension or reinterpretation of the law, or because laws are in place unequivocally prohibiting such a claim (see Good Samaritan law).
In the United States, Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and similar state rules require that an attorney perform a due diligence investigation concerning the factual basis for any claim or defense. Jurisdictions differ on whether a claim or defense can be frivolous if the attorney acted in good faith. Because a frivolous defense or claim wastes the court's and the other parties' time, resources and legal fees, sanctions may be imposed by a court upon the party or the lawyer who presents the frivolous defense or claim. The law firm may also be sanctioned, or even held in contempt.
Lawyer Daniel B. Evans writes:

Statutes and rules of court penalizing frivolous litigation

In the United States Tax Court, frivolous arguments may result in a penalty of up to $25,000 under . Similarly, section 7482 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal courts of appeals may impose penalties where the taxpayer's appeal of a U.S. Tax Court decision was "maintained primarily for delay" or where "the taxpayer's position in the appeal is frivolous or groundless."
In a non-criminal case in a United States district court, a litigant (or a litigant's attorney) who presents any pleading, written motion or other paper to the court is required, under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to certify that, to the best of the presenter's knowledge and belief, the legal contentions "are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law". Monetary civil penalties for violation of this rule may in some cases be imposed on the litigant or the attorney under Rule 11. In one case, the Seventh Circuit issued an order giving such an attorney "14 days to show cause why he should not be fined $10,000 for his frivolous arguments". A similar rule penalizing frivolous litigation applies in U.S. Bankruptcy Court under Rule 9011.
Congress has enacted section 1912 of title 28 of the United States Code providing that in the United States Supreme Court and in the various courts of appeals where litigation by the losing party has caused damage to the prevailing party, the court may impose a requirement that the losing party pay the prevailing party for those damages.
Litigants who represent themselves (in forma pauperis and pro se) often make frivolous arguments due to their limited knowledge of the law and procedure. The particular tendency of prisoners to bring baseless lawsuits led to passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which limits the ability of prisoners to bring actions.

Court treatment of frivolous arguments

An example of a Court's treatment of frivolous arguments is found in the case of Crain v. Commissioner, 737 F.2d 1417 (1984), from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit:
Glenn Crain appeals from the dismissal of his Tax Court petition challenging the constitutional authority of that body and defying the jurisdiction of the Internal Revenue Service to levy taxes on his income. Crain asserts that he "is not subject to the jurisdiction, taxation, nor regulation of the state," that the "Internal Revenue Service, Incorporated" lacks authority to exercise the judicial power of the United States, that the Tax Court is unconstitutionally attempting to exercise Article III powers, and that jurisdiction over his person has never been affirmatively proven.
We perceive no need to refute these arguments with somber reasoning and copious citation of precedent; to do so might suggest that these arguments have some colorable merit. The constitutionality of our income tax system--including the role played within that system by the Internal Revenue Service and the Tax Court--has long been established. We affirm the dismissal of Crain's spurious "petition" and the assessment of a penalty imposed by the Tax Court for instituting a frivolous proceeding. .
The government asks us to assess penalties against Crain for bringing this frivolous appeal, as is authorized by Fed. R. App. P. 38. In Parker v. C. I. R., 724 F. 2d 469, 472 (5th Cir. 1984), we sounded "a cautionary note to those who would persistently raise arguments against the income tax which have been put to rest for years. The full range of sanctions in Rule 38 hereafter shall be summoned in response to a totally frivolous appeal."
We are sensitive to the need for the courts to remain open to all who seek in good faith to invoke the protection of law. An appeal that lacks merit is not always--or often--frivolous. However, we are not obliged to suffer in silence the filing of baseless, insupportable appeals presenting no colorable claims of error and designed only to delay, obstruct, or incapacitate the operations of the courts or any other governmental authority. Crain's present appeal is of this sort. It is a hodgepodge of unsupported assertions, irrelevant platitudes, and legalistic gibberish. The government should not have been put to the trouble of responding to such spurious arguments, nor this court to the trouble of "adjudicating" this meritless appeal.
Accordingly, we grant the government's request. The United States shall recover from appellant Crain twice its cost of this appeal. Additionally, we assess against Crain a damage award of $2000 in favor of the appellee United States.

Examples of frivolous court filings

In Washington v. Alaimo the court listed more than seventy five frivolous "motions" (a request for a court to issue an order), all of which required the attention of the Court, that included:
  • "Motion to Kiss My Ass"
  • "Motion to Behoove an Inquisition"
  • "Motion for Judex Delegatus"
  • "Motion for Restoration of Sanity"
  • "Motion for Deinstitutionalization"
  • "Motion for Publicity"
  • "Motion to Vacate Jurisdiction"
  • "Motion for Cesset pro Cessus"
  • "Motion for Nunc pro tunc"
  • "Motion for Psychoanalysis"
  • "Motion to Impeach Judge Alaimo"
  • "Motion to Renounce Citizenship"
  • "Motion to Exhume Body of Alex Hodgson"
  • "Motion to Invoke and Execute Rule 15--Retroactive Note: The Court's School Days are Over"
  • "Motion for Skin Change Operation"
  • "Motion for Catered Food Services"
Washington, an inmate from Georgia, was eventually prohibited from filing any future lawsuits or motions in any district court unless he first posted a contempt bond of $1,500. To be deemed frivolous, a litigant's arguments must truly strike beyond the pale.

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

aimless, airy, amorphous, asinine, birdbrained, birdwitted, brainless, buxom, capricious, casual, catchpenny, childish, desultory, disarticulated, discontinuous, disjunct, disordered, dispersed, disproportionate, dizzy, empty, empty-headed, erratic, fatuous, featherbrained, featherheaded, fitful, flighty, flimsy, flip, flippant, fluffy, fluttery, foolish, formless, fribble, fribbling, frothy, futile, gaga, giddy, giddy-brained, giddy-headed, giddy-pated, giddy-witted, gleeful, gratuitous, haphazard, harebrain, harebrained, hilarious, hit-or-miss, idle, immethodical, inane, inchoate, incoherent, inconsequential, indiscriminate, insignificant, irregular, irresponsible, jocular, jocund, jolly, jovial, joyful, joyous, laughter-loving, light, meaningless, merry, minor, mirth-loving, mirthful, misshapen, niggling, nonsymmetrical, nonsystematic, nonuniform, nugacious, nugatory, orderless, otiose, paltry, peripheral, petty, planless, playful, promiscuous, puerile, random, rattlebrained, rattleheaded, rattlepated, rejoicing, risible, scatterbrained, scramblebrained, senseless, shallow, shallow-headed, shallow-minded, shallow-pated, shallow-witted, shapeless, shatterbrained, silly, slender, slight, small-time, spasmodic, sporadic, straggling, straggly, superficial, systemless, thoughtless, trifling, trite, trivial, two-bit, twopenny, unarranged, unclassified, undirected, ungraded, unimportant, unjoined, unmethodical, unordered, unorganized, unprofound, unsorted, unsymmetrical, unsystematic, ununiform, vacuous, vague, vain, vapid, volatile, wandering, windy, witless, worthless
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