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Back Story: The Man Who Tried to Sue the Devil

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BY M. SCOTT MCKENNA, ESQ. Although this issue of Nevada Lawyer focuses primarily on the topic of evidence, October is also, of course, the month in which Halloween falls. As a partial derivation of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (typically pronounced /’sa:win/), Halloween has been celebrated (seriously or not) as a time when the boundaries between the corporeal and spiritual worlds are temporarily blurred. In the modern-day United States, however, Halloween has evolved into a secular holiday in which children attempt to extort sweets from homeowners and other residents under the threat of a “trick”: that is, a night of pranks and mischief. Thus, it seems appropriate, in this October issue of Nevada Lawyer, to take a brief look at what must be one of the most bizarre – and, at times, comically mischievous – cases in the history of American jurisprudence. The case in question is United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and His Staff.1 In Satan and His Staff, plaintiff Gerald Mayo, proceeding pro se, requested that the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania grant him leave to proceed in forma pauperis and file a federal civil rights action against the Devil and his minions. Specifically, Mr. Mayo alleged that he had been deprived of his constitutional rights by virtue of the fact that “Satan [had] on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan [had] placed deliberate obstacles in his path and [had] caused plaintiff’s downfall.”2 Not surprisingly, the court denied the plaintiff’s request. What is notable, though, is that the court clearly decided to have a bit of fun in crafting its holding, denying the plaintiff’s request on three separate – albeit very practical – grounds. First, the court questioned whether the plaintiff could obtain personal jurisdiction over the defendant and, in doing so, gave a nod to the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, written by Stephen Vincent Benét: We question whether plaintiff may obtain personal jurisdiction over the defendant in this judicial district. The complaint contains no allegation of residence in this district. While the official reports disclose no case where this defendant has appeared as defendant there is an unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire where this defendant filed an action of mortgage foreclosure as plaintiff. The defendant in that action was represented by the preeminent advocate of that day, and raised the defense that the plaintiff was a foreign prince with no standing to sue in an American court. This defense was overcome by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whether or not this would raise an estoppel in the present case we are unable to determine at this time.3 Next, the court noted that, were the plaintiff’s action to be allowed, the court would be forced to determine whether the suit could be maintained as a class action. In “analyzing” this issue, the court playfully and implicitly referred to the notion of “The Devil made me do it,” conceding that “[the plaintiff’s action appeared] to meet the requirements of Fed.R. of Civ.P 23 [because] the class [was] so . numerous that joinder of all members [was] impracticable, there [were] questions of law and fact common to the class, and the claims of the representative party [were] typical of the claims of the class.”4 The court concluded, however, that it was unsure the plaintiff could meet the fourth prerequisite to a class action, as the court was unable to determine at that time whether the plaintiff (representative party) would “fairly represent the interests of the class.”5 Finally, in a last jesting riposte, the court denied the plaintiff’s request upon yet a third ground, noting that “the plaintiff has failed to include with his complaint the required form of instructions for the United States Marshal for directions as to service of process.”6 As United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and His Staff illustrates, sometimes truth is (very much) stranger than fiction, in the courtroom just as elsewhere.7
MICHAEL (SCOTT) MCKENNA currently serves as a Senior Principal Deputy Legislative Counsel in the Legal Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB). McKenna has been employed by the LCB since May of 1996 and previously worked as a law clerk for the Bonneville Power Administration (Portland, OR), a power marketing agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1971). Id. at 283. Id. Id. Id. Id. See also Polite v. Diehl, 507 F.2d 119, 141 n.20 (3rd Cir. 1974) (Kalodner, J., concurring) (“The pièce de résistance of civil rights actions is United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1971), where the plaintiff, alleging jurisdiction under [42 U.S.C. §] 1983 prayed for leave to file a complaint in forma pauperis, for violation of his civil rights by “Satan and His Staff” in causing plaintiff’s downfall. The action was docketed albeit leave to proceed in forma pauperis was denied.”).
Nevada Lawyer
October 2010

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