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'Gadfly' in McNugget suit has legal wings clipped Claim over extra sauce yields warning about man hot to litigate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Keenan Kester Cofield is the man who sued too much.

In Alabama he sued his guards while in prison and the Burger King where he ate on work release. And in Tennessee he sued a newspaper in which he placed his own obituary.

Last year, after moving to Maryland, Cofield -- whom one federal judge labeled "a gadfly and an exploiter of the court system" -- began testing the patience of Baltimore County's court system as well, this time using the name Lord Keenan Kester Cofield.

After he and his wife were refused extra sauce for their chicken nuggets, they sued McDonald's Corp. and a franchise on McClean Boulevard, seeking more than $1 billion in damages in a class action, race discrimination suit.

But the judge who threw out the case considered the suit so frivolous he restricted Cofield from filing any more cases in the county.

Lawyers for McDonald's won't comment on the suit, but Cofield says, "The judge was totally out of order. His decision was illegal."

Though the case may be extreme, legal observers say Cofield's latest lawsuit illustrates a common problem: abuse of the civil court system by frivolous litigants.

"This is the perfect example of all the bad things put together in one person," said Joseph Sachs, board member of the Baltimore Regional Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which fights what it considers excessive and unnecessary lawsuits.

While it is impossible to tell how many frivolous suits are filed in Maryland, Sachs' group notes what it calls the excessive number of civil cases statewide -- 887,010 in 1996, according to the National Center for State Courts. That made Maryland fourth in the nation for civil suits that year.

Before it was dismissed in January, the McDonald's suit generated a 9-inch-thick court file with motions from the fast-food chain's defendants and from Cofield, who wrote his legal papers without a lawyer.

By the time it was over, Cofield had added as defendants 17 judges on the Baltimore County Circuit bench, Maryland's attorney general and comptroller -- and cost McDonald's $62,000 in legal fees. Cofield was ordered to pay the legal fees but hasn't.

"Somewhere along the line every customer at McDonald's is paying every penny of that $62,000," said Sachs, an Annapolis city alderman. "How many legitimate lawsuits are getting pushed to the back burner because the court system is dealing with this?"

Ultimately, he said, taxpayers will pay "the cost of clogging the system."

In an attempt to stop Cofield from filing more suits, the judge in the McDonald's case ordered the county court clerk not to accept any civil suit from Cofield unless a judge first determines it isn't frivolous.

And if Cofield tries to file a suit elsewhere in Maryland, he first must submit a copy of the decision in the McDonald's case to the court where he is bringing suit.

Cofield, 38, has spent most of his adult life filing dozens of lawsuits against people and businesses, usually acting as his own lawyer.

In 1982, he filed a suit accusing his jail guards of choking him while he was doing time for writing bad checks in Alabama. He sought $350 million in damages; a jury gave him $740, even though a judge said he did not believe there was any evidence of serious injury.

While on work release in 1986, Cofield sued Burger King, claiming he became ill from the "animal byproducts" in its food. A federal judge in Alabama threw out the case.

And in 1991, Cofield received a five-year term in federal prison for fraud after he sued the Chattanooga Times in Tennessee for running his obituary -- which prosecutors say he purposely placed to extort money from the newspaper for damages.

"He cost us an arm and a leg, more than $20,000" in legal fees, said Stephen Ingham, vice president and general manager of the Chattanooga Times.

At the time of his sentencing in Tennessee, U.S. District Judge Thomas G. Hull told Cofield he was getting the maximum five-year sentence because his conduct "needs to be stopped," according to a transcript of the hearing. Court records also indicated that he had placed his obituary in other newspapers in the South and sued them.

Today, while Cofield is on probation after serving his federal sentence, he lives in a small townhouse in Parkville. During a recent interview, he politely answered questions and appeared unperturbed by criticism of his lawsuits and his criminal convictions.

"I have an amazing spirit to see things that affect individuals' rights," he said, explaining that his penchant for filing lawsuits is "not a crusade."

His small living room is crammed with law books, several volumes of the Maryland Annotated Code, a word processor and a sofa covered in files.

During the interview, a fax machine beeped with incoming documents and a cell phone rang continuously until he turned it off. Cofield said he doesn't work because of a disability to his back and a hand but does legal research for "private individuals."

Cofield said that while in prison he received a law degree by correspondence from the University of Southern California. But that school has no record of him ever attending, according to David Hoffman, the registrar.

"I've never met anyone quite like Mr. Cofield. It certainly was my first experience with something of this magnitude," said Cypert O. Whitfill, the Harford County Circuit judge brought to Towson to hear the McDonald's case. All the Baltimore County judges were excused after they were named as defendants.

In an interview, Whitfill called Cofield's penchant for filing suits "an aberration" in the court system -- but his 82-page opinion had harsher words.

He called Cofield a "vexatious litigator who inundates the judicial system with frivolous lawsuits" and "uses the judicial system as vehicle to extort settlement monies from innocent parties."

When Whitfill began researching Cofield's history for his ruling in the McDonald's case, the judge found no similar Maryland cases to assist him in his ruling, although a federal judge in Alabama had placed similar restrictions on Cofield.

"I had no guidance other than my own creativity," said Whitfill.

Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., chief judge for the state's 3rd Judicial Circuit overseeing Baltimore and Harford counties, also found Cofield's suit unusual.

"I've never seen anything like the McDonald's case," said DeWaters, who has seen others abuse the system to a lesser degree -- especially in divorce cases where one side will repeatedly attempt to modify visitation or custody of children.

Cofield appears unfazed by the dismissal of his McDonald's suit and by Whitfill's restriction against filing future lawsuits.

Even though he's missed the deadline for appealing it, Cofield says he knows other ways of legally challenging the judge's decision, which he called a "fraud."

"It's just like Kenneth Starr," he said, referring to the independent counsel investigating the Whitewater scandal. "I'm going to pursue it to the end. I'm not intimidated."

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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