WECT Investigates: Judge’s order blocks man from filing ‘frivolous’ lawsuits

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COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Calvin Norton has sued local officials so many times in lawsuits deemed “frivolous” by a judge, that he has effectively had his right to sue in state court revoked. But that hasn’t stopped the Columbus County man.

Norton, a self-taught man of the law, has now shifted his focus to the federal courts. He has continued to sue dozens of public officials and others he says have infringed on his constitutional rights, insisting that speaking out through the courts is the only real way to hold them accountable.

“We have the right to freedom of speech,” Norton explained. “And that is the most [basic] right under the constitution, to be able to say, ‘I don’t like this. This is not right. This is not law.’”

Norton is a familiar name to many in Columbus County. He’s a minister; he’s run for Whiteville City Council and Columbus County Sheriff in years past; and he’s a regular at the courthouse, representing himself in an ever growing number of lawsuits against dozens of defendants.

Norton isn’t shy when choosing his targets. Whether it be a judge, a county commissioner or the sheriff of Columbus County, he’s named them all in recent lawsuits.

We’ve uncovered two dozen different lawsuits where he’s listed as the plaintiff, and that is likely not a complete list. In addition to public officials, Norton has sued doctors, churches, and mortgage companies.

“I’m doing the same thing the lawyers do every day,” Norton explained. “The difference is they’re getting paid. And I’m not doing it for money. I’m doing it for the right thing.”

Gatekeeper Order

In 2012, after Norton named District Court Judge Scott Ussery as a defendant in one of his lawsuits, the defendant hit back. Judge Ussery, represented by Special Deputy Attorney General David Adinolfi of the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, appealed to a judge to block Norton from suing again.

Citing Norton’s “voluntary dismissals of six (6) frivolous lawsuits in the past four (4) years, three of which wrongfully implead Judges as defendants,” Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser ruled that Norton was prohibited from filing any other “complaints, motions, petitions, or other filings of any kind whatsoever in the State of North Carolina Courts” unless first reviewed by a duly licensed attorney who has reviewed the filing and believes it can prevail in court, and approved by the Senior Resident Court Judge where the motion is being filed.

The so called “gatekeeper order” against Norton has since been amended to allow him to represent himself in ongoing child support proceedings with the mother of his children.

Gatekeeper orders are rare in North Carolina, but allowed in certain cases where a plaintiff is deemed to have abused the legal system through excessive litigation.

“Courts have the inherent authority to enter pre-filing injunctions ― also referred to as gatekeeper orders ― restricting individuals from filing new lawsuits or other papers without court approval, when necessary to prevent abuse of the judicial process and protect other parties,” the UNC School of Government explains in its NC Superior Court Judges’ Benchbook. “The gatekeeper order should be a last resort after other attempts to control the litigant…have failed.”

The book notes that getting approval from a lawyer before filing court motions “should not be the only alternative available, however, because that would have the effect of requiring the person to employ a lawyer.”

A call to Judge Sasser inquiring about the details in his gatekeeper order against Norton was not returned.

Cost of Litigation

Norton has sued Columbus County at least eight times in the last nine years. Each time he files suit, the county says it pays a $5,000 deductible to its insurance company to defend them against his claims.

This means taxpayers have spent at least $40,000 in insurance deductibles, defending these suits. The additional cost of county and court employees time filing thousands of pages of paperwork involved in these suits was not immediately clear.

Norton has filed as in indigent, so court officials say the traditional court fees associated with processing these lawsuits have been waived for him. When we asked him if it was fair to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for these lawsuits, Norton said it’s in the taxpayers control to fix some of the issues that have prompted him to file suit.

“They need to be voting out commissioners and voting out leaders who allow abuse from law-enforcement or whomever in this county,” he said. “That’s what the taxpayers should be doing.”

Track Record

While he has been filing lawsuits since at least 2003, many people in our community were not familiar with Norton before his federal lawsuit protesting the results of the 2018 Columbus County Sheriff’s race. He sued 23 people connected to that race, including the entire elections board, the county commissioners, and both candidates in the sheriff’s race.

Norton sued for fraud and gross negligence, among other things, saying Greene was not qualified by law to run for sheriff in Columbus County because he did not meet the residency requirements.

Greene owns a farm in Cerro Gordo, and many questioned whether he was truly living in the RV on that farm when he had homes in two neighboring counties. Greene had none of the permits people traditionally acquire for water and septic use on that land. Greene also indicated on tax forms that he did not live at the property.

Norton claims public officials failed to properly verify that Greene lived in the county before putting his name on the ballot. Further, he says (and state officials have confirmed) that Columbus County officials improperly swore Greene in as sheriff while formal protests of the election results were still pending.

One of the defendants in Norton’s suit is Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was indicted for election fraud earlier this year and was hired to work on Greene’s campaign.

While Norton’s lawsuit is ongoing, his subpoena power already helped the public gain access to documents that were not public record, but were relevant to the residency investigation of a public official. Specifically, Norton obtained documents from the State Highway Patrol, where Greene used to work, that detailed his residential address history. He also obtained copies of Greene’s detailed billing history at the property in question from Duke Energy.

We are not aware of any lawsuits that Norton has won outright. He has voluntarily dismissed many of them.

He made it as far as a jury trial in one 2014 suit against Whiteville Police Chief Jeffrey Rosier, after Norton accused Rosier of illegal search and seizure for allegedly pulling him over in South Carolina.

Norton says he only lost that case because witnesses failed show up for the trial. Rosier’s attorney says the traffic stop in question never happened. During the time of the alleged stop, there is evidence to support Rosier was at his office and then a Rotary Club meeting in Whiteville.

Norton indicated some of his suits settled out of court, but he was prohibited from commenting on the details. Regardless of the outcomes, he feels his lawsuits have helped keep government officials in check when they have abused their power.

Advocate or nuisance?

In addition to defending himself, Norton says he’s a voice for others in the community who have been wronged, but cannot get a lawyer to take their case. But some members of the community see him as a bully who abuses the legal system to intimidate his opponents.

“This is prime abuse. Prime abuse of the system right here,” Mack Ward, a retired Columbus County magistrate said of Norton’s lawsuits. “[Suing] seems to be his favorite past time…. On several occasions I have been threatened by him, but that’s just as regular as the sun coming up in the morning. But this is my first experience of actually receiving the litigation and service being made.” Ward was named as a defendant in Norton’s suit over the sheriff’s race, for his role on the Columbus County Board of Election (CCBOE).

Norton claims the CCBOE was negligent for not investigating concerns about Greene’s residency, but Ward noted that Greene had been a registered voter in Columbus County since 2012.

Ward said the board advised two other sheriff’s candidates who questioned Greene’s qualifications for office that they needed to file a sworn affidavit detailing their concerns, and those candidates declined to follow through. Ward said without those affidavits, the Board did not have the authority to investigate.

Ward said after receiving the lawsuit, he was gravely concerned about what it would cost him to defend himself in US District Court. He was relieved to learn the county would cover the cost of his legal defense, along with most of the other defendants who were operating in their capacity as county officials, but said it’s still a burden to the taxpayers.

Tactics questioned

Ward is also angry that Norton used County Manager Mike Stephens information for the return address on the envelope notifying Ward of Norton’s lawsuit against him. When the postman served Ward with the paperwork, Ward unwittingly signed the certified mail receipt not realizing the package was actually a lawsuit from Norton.

While it is clearly deceptive, Ward and Norton agree there is nothing illegal about erroneously filling out the return address portion of an envelope.

“Once you receive it, you’re sued, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing illegal about it,” Norton said of his misleading, but effective method to serve the lawsuit through the mail. “Why would anybody be upset they are being sued when this election fraud exists? Except they were a part of the fraud. So that’s the major issue. Not the mail, but I’m upset you caught me in my act.”

We reached out to Stephens for comment on whether he gave Norton permission to use his return address when serving the lawsuits. Stephens referred us to his attorney who we were unable to reach.

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