An emerging pattern of aggressive and often baseless lawsuits from three litigious Madison residents is irritating judges and lawyers in state and federal courts.
In five years, the pattern has spanned 25 lawsuits and 103 defendants. Cartoonist Rodney Rigsby, children’s entertainer Catherine Conrad and artist Quincy Neri have amassed more than $150,000 in judgments against them, with more on the way.
Judicial patience is wearing thin.
In a March 26, 2013, order, Dane County Circuit Judge William Foust called one of the lawsuits “just about the biggest waste of judicial time I have ever encountered.”
On April 14, 2014, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner called the spate of suits “an abuse of the legal process” and recommended federal judges bar Conrad from filing any lawsuits until she pays her sanctions. So far, the group’s members have paid only $80 of the judgments levied against them.
A judge has never ruled in their favor to end a case. Most of them end up being thrown out of court.
But those sued are forced to engage in what can be stressful and costly litigation.
Eric Ferguson, a self-employed Spring Green photographer, has been sued six times by members of the trio. He said the litigation pattern has caused “this constant kind of stress.”
The lawsuits continue, however, and defendants say they have little hope they will see the money judges awarded them.
“Repeated monetary sanctions have proved ineffective,” according to a brief filed March 21, 2014, by attorney Timothy Barber of Axley Brynelson LLP. “Rigsby has not paid previous sanction awards and he continues to file baseless lawsuits against attorneys and law firms.”
Conrad and Rigsby declined to discuss their lawsuits. Both said only that the litigation is “about jobs,” though they would not explain what that meant.
Neri did not return phone messages. She was not home when a reporter visited her apartment in Madison.
“Whether it’s fair, unfair … it doesn’t matter,” Rigsby said.
Rigsby had his first experience with trademark and copyright litigation in 1997, when he unsuccessfully sued the National Football League for $100 million over the then-Los Angeles Rams moving to St. Louis. Rigsby claimed the NFL and the team were infringing on a trademark he filed in Wisconsin for a fictional team he drew called the “St. Louis Rams.” The suit was dismissed.
It would be more than a decade before his next suit, when, in 2009, he and Conrad sued Westport Marine Inc. for alleged illegal use of her “The Banana Lady” image in a postcard mailer advertising the company’s services.
Conrad, dressed in a banana costume, performs as The Banana Lady, dancing and singing to teach children about the importance of eating healthy.
Westport Marine settled not long after, as did subsequent defendants Isthmus Publishing Inc. and Madison Festivals Inc., which faced similar complaints.
Then, the suits started multiplying.
Conrad was listed as a plaintiff in six lawsuits in 2011, two in 2012 and five in 2013. Rigsby’s name was on 10 suits in the same time period.
The suits filed by the pair, as well as individually, dealt mostly with The Banana Lady business, though some also dealt with business consulting work the pair did. Rigsby is listed as Conrad’s business manager on The Banana Lady website.
In one instance, Conrad and Rigsby twice sued the now-defunct AM Community Credit Union in Kenosha, claiming those in the audience for one of Conrad’s singing telegrams at a credit union conference illegally posted pictures and recordings of the performance on the Internet. The suit was preceded by an email to the credit union to take down the images, according to court documents.
Conrad also named Todd Streeter, a former AM Community employee, in the suit for defamation after he responded to Conrad’s email with an email stating her tactics seemed “rude and overreaching.”
“That was apparently all I needed to learn about the legal system,” Streeter, who now lives in Gainesville, Fla., said. “It’s been a two-and-a-half-year journey ever since.”
Foust threw out the Dane County lawsuit in January 2013. Conrad refiled it in June 2013 in the Western District of Wisconsin, where it was thrown out that August.
On three occasions, Conrad and Rigsby sued attorney Elizabeth Russell, whom they hired to work on copyright and trademark, accusing her of false advertising and malpractice. In the suits, they claimed Russell cost them substantial amounts of money in failed litigation.
Russell, a solo practitioner in Middleton, declined to comment. Her attorney, Michael Crooks, of Peterson Johnson & Murray SC, also was named in one of the suits Conrad filed against Russell. He did not return a call for comment.
Conrad filed similar suits against attorneys at Bell Moore & Richter SC. She had hired them to do some work for her and claimed in a July 2011 lawsuit that “but for the negligent acts and omissions … to have been committed by all defendants, plaintiff would have successfully been able to claim copyright and trademark infringements.”
One of Conrad’s suits against the firm is pending in Dane County Circuit Court. The attorney representing the firm, Michael Vescio of SmithAmundsen LLC, did not return phone calls.
Neri, the third member of the group, is a plaintiff in seven of the 25 lawsuits. Each of those seven is related to “Mendota Reflection,” a piece of art commissioned in 2008 as part of the remodeling of a Madison condominium.
Neri worked on the piece with Madison artist and glassblower Fritz Schomburg.
According to court papers, the contractor for the remodeling, Architectural Building Arts Inc., used project photos, in which Mendota Reflection can be seen in the background, on its website and for a competition.
In 2011, Neri and Rigsby copyrighted the piece of art and promptly sued the contractor as well as Ferguson, who took the photos. Since then, more defendants were added.
All of the suits, except for one, have been dismissed. According to an April 15, 2014, letter from Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson, Rigsby and Neri still were pursing a case even though it was thrown out.
“By this letter, I am reiterating … what has been stated before: this case is over,” Markson stated in the letter. “Neither of you may do anything in furtherance of the positions you have asserted in this case, and if you do, you will face a further sanction and will invite a determination that you are in contempt of court.”
Ferguson said his insurance company paid for an attorney in the three cases in federal court. But, he said, without money to spend on an attorney, he had to represent himself in the three cases brought in Dane County.
“It is a daunting task,” Ferguson said. “I’m not sure how well I’ve done. But I also realize legally they’re not on good ground. It makes it a little bit easier to represent myself.”
The suits revolve mainly around the many copyrights or trademarks that Conrad, Neri and Rigsby amassed during the past two decades. Nearly all of the cases are handled without the aid of an attorney.
Their pattern, according to court records and interviews, is to file similar lawsuits in state and federal court, sometimes concurrently. Once they file, they continue to amend their suits and add defendants. Eventually the defendants’ attorneys are added and accused of malpractice.
They’ve launched suits against photographers, interior designers, bank employees and attorneys.
Rigsby often enters a lawsuit, filed by either Conrad or Neri, a few weeks after filing and asserts the same claims. He proclaimed in court filings that he did legal work for his business partners and has shown himself to be adept at drafting legal documents.
“This is what he seems to spend his time doing,” Ferguson said. “He’s got enough practice. He really has more practice than most attorneys do.”
On occasion, according to court records and those involved, the trio has shown up at businesses and homes, demanding settlements before even filing a suit.
“I would not meet with them,” said attorney and state Rep. Gary Hebl, who briefly represented a client who was sued twice despite paying a $4,000 pre-litigation settlement. “I heard that they were litigious in nature and knew anything I did or said would be misinterpreted.”
Barber is named as a defendant in two of the suits. According to Barber’s March 21 brief in support of sanctions, Rigsby brings “frivolous copyright actions in the hopes of extracting extravagant settlement monies from the parties sued.”
Madison attorney Travis West of SBG Law SC, Madison, in a March 24, 2014, filing, called Rigsby “a serial, strike-suit litigant.” Rigsby sued West for, in essence, not settling a claim Conrad and Rigsby brought against West’s client.
“The problem, of course, is that Mr. Rigsby’s unlawful conduct is not merely obnoxious,” according to West’s filing. “It is expensive and damaging to those individuals upon whom he sets his sights and it consumes the precious resources of the courts.”
Rigsby has filed two lawsuits this year.
In one, he’s suing attorneys West and Jim Statz, as well as their employer, SBG Law.
Rigsby claims in his lawsuit that the attorneys “dragged out litigation for their own interests” in a suit involving a client who hired Rigsby for some consulting work. In other words, they did not settle.
In the other suit, Rigsby is suing Chris Miscik, a former business partner, Michael Riley of Axley Brynelson, Miscik’s attorney, and insurance companies stemming from a car crash in which Miscik was involved.
READ OUR RELATED EDITORIAL: Break the cycle of vexatious litigation
Rigsby was not in the crash, but he claims he is entitled to $1.6 million, even though the settlement only was $5,000, according to his lawsuit. He states that he was doing legal work for Miscik before Miscik hired Riley, and that Riley used Rigsby’s legal work – which Rigsby attempted to copyright a week before the suit was filed – to obtain a settlement.
Barber, who now represents Riley and Miscik, filed a brief to support a motion to dismiss the case. According to the brief, “Even ignoring the fact that Rigsby’s alleged copyright is based upon his unauthorized practice of law (a crime in Wisconsin), it is flatly unreasonable to suggest that Rigsby could have suffered over $1 million in damages.”
And it appears Western District of Wisconsin Judge Barbara Crabb agreed. She dismissed all of Rigsby’s claims – except for the copyright one against Miscik, Riley and Axley Brynelson – in an April 17, 2014, order.
She also ordered Rigsby to pay attorney’s fees for the dismissed claims, though the amount has not yet been determined.
“Plaintiff is on notice,” Crabb’s order reads, “that a more severe sanction such as a filing ban may be appropriate if he continues to file frivolous claims of the sort dismissed in this order.”
Because the trio claims indigent status when filing in federal court, judges there have started to screen cases before they get too far. Many cases filed in 2013 were thrown out within a couple of months.
Posner’s recommendation to bar the trio from filing in the Western District is the first by a judge, even if some attorneys have asked for similar measures.
Still, that’s an extreme measure, said Charles Kahn, a retired Milwaukee County judge and mediator.
“Courts would want to be very careful about limiting an individual’s access to our courts since it’s a key part to our democracy,” Kahn said. “There are situations that require some response by the justice system, but still, people’s right to the fundamental aspects that make up our legal system have to be protected.”
Bruce Boyden, a law professor at Marquette University, said that reticence is seen across the board.
“Judges are very reluctant,” he said, “to put any sort of screening mechanism on what attorneys can file what claims.”
Many attorneys who represented clients sued by members of the group say they don’t expect to receive the fees judges awarded them.
“They’re discouraging, because they continue,” said Sally Anderson, vice president of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., a defendant in three of the lawsuits. “I would very much like for someone to say, ‘This is enough.’”
Hebl, who called the trio “a real scourge on the legal profession in the state,” said he didn’t know the best way to stop them, but “the sooner we can do it, the better.”
“At this point,” he said, “they’ve done so much litigation that they should not be able to file lawsuits for the rest of their lives.” Follow @eheisigWLJ
Here is a little bit about their work and who they are:
Conrad, 54, has performed in the Madison area as The Banana Lady for more than 25 years, often with her stuffed monkey, Spike, according to court filings.
Her mission, according to the bananalady.com website, is to help “effect positive change in kids and their families with her unique sparkle.” She has performed for kids and adults, released two CDs of music and spoken word, and wrote a book.
The public calendar on her website, though, has not had an entry since May 2011.
According to a July 8, 2013, court filing, her employer was Rodcat Events LLC, a company she and Rigsby operate. According to the filing, she made $250 a month, yet had $325 a month in expenses.
“Between my intellectual property being infringed on the last few years … I have lost most of my income,” according to comments attributed to Conrad in the filing. “I also have sanctions to pay.”
Neri, 38, is a Madison-based artist who specializes in glass blowing, painting and drawings, according to the website quincyneri.com.
She graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. According to her website, which has pictures of her work, Neri’s art “touches on aspects of humanity such as war, politics and mob mentality,” and “her interests are many and are all studied, examined and experimented with constantly.”
Among the pieces of art featured on her website is “Mendota Reflection,” which has been the subject of several lawsuits. In court filings for those suits, defendants and judges questioned how much Neri was involved in the creation of the piece.
As of a May 29, 2013, court filing, Neri was unemployed and received $1,000 per month from her parents in the form of a “gift.” According to the court filing, she owns more than $180,000 worth of art.
According to state records, Rodney Rigsby, 48, has worked as a cartoonist. Some of the cartoon trademarks he filed — all under his now-shuttered company Johnny Blastoff Inc., between 1994 and 1997 — were for drawings of characters such as “Wally Wombat,” “Bucky Wombat” and the “St. Louis Rams.”
He trademarked four names for the purpose of “frozen pizza and labels and packaging,” according to state records. He also filed four variations on the phrase “world dairy,” stating he wanted to use the trademark for clothing, pens and candy, among other things.
Those trademarks have expired, though he owns some active trademarks and copyrights with Conrad and Neri. Exactly how he met Conrad and Neri and began his pattern of litigation is unknown.
According to a Facebook page attributed to him, Rigsby worked at American TV in Madison and attended Waukesha South High School.