Federal District Court Order Protects Montana’s Pro Se Litigants

By Judy Meadows, Montana State Law Librarian and Co-Chair, Montana Commission on Self-Represented LitigantsThe Montana Supreme Court’s Commission on Self-Represented Litigants (the Commission) and Montana Legal Services Association have spent years developing, reviewing, editing and approving legal forms that are easy to understand and compliant with state law. These forms are then posted on the State Law Library of Montana’s website, as well as on MontanaLawHelp. The purpose of the forms is to help people access the legal redress they are seeking, and to get on with their lives. These are almost universally low income Montanans who cannot afford attorneys.These forms have been registered with the United States Copyright Office. On each page of each form is language stating that the forms cannot be used by commercial entities, and providing the copyright notice.There is a business listed in the Helena phone book as “Legal Aid Assisted,” 406/443-3041. When someone calls that number, a recorded message states that documents will be prepared for customers involved in divorce, child custody, and other matters typically faced by people who cannot afford lawyers. In late March, 2010, a citizen and resident of Montana called the above telephone number (which is still in operation) and contracted for the preparation of legal documents. She was required to pay $389. The form that was sent to her was identical to the free forms that are available on the State Law Library’s website, and included the statements of copyright and restriction for only not-for-profit purposes.The Commission took action upon finding out about this theft. Represented by pro bono attorney extraordinaire Bob Lukes of the Garlington Lohn &Robinson firm in Missoula, we filed a complaint in federal district court for copyright infringement. On June 29, 2011, Judge Donald Molloy issued his Order and Conclusions of Law. In it he said that Legal Aids’s action had been willful and malicious, and he entered a judgment against the Defendant for $20,000. He also enjoined the firm from using any more of our forms. We now are pursuing collection of the judgment, using a debt collector located in Florida, where the firm in located.This is not the first time we have had to take legal action against national forms companies who steal our information and sell it to unsuspecting individuals who either “Google” a search or call a phone number that gets transferred to another state. Legal Zoom was the first company we had to stop from the practice. Since the time of this current judgment I have learned that people in Butte were charged $250 for our forms.If you hear of this happening, please let me know who the victims are, who they contracted with, and which of our free forms were sold. It is only with continued and national attention to this bilking of our citizens, that we can stop these charlatans.