Looks like ChatGPT hallucinations may have tripped up another law firm. Here, it’s a firm that bills itself as California’s leading eviction law firm.
According to LAist (This Prolific LA Eviction Law Firm Was Caught Faking Cases In Court. Did They Misuse AI?, written by David Wagner and available here), the law firm Dennis P. Block and Associates, which describes itself as the state’s “leading eviction law firm”, and claims it has handled more than 200,000 evictions, was sanctioned for submitting a court filing a judge said was “rife with inaccurate and false statements.”
At first glance, the filing from April looks credible. It’s properly formatted. Block’s signature at the bottom lends a stamp of authority. Case citations are provided to bolster Block’s argument for why the tenant should be evicted.
But when L.A. Superior Court Judge Ian Fusselman took a closer look, he spotted a major problem. Two of the cases cited in the brief were not real. Others had nothing to do with eviction law, the judge said.
Like the filing in Avianca v. Mata earlier this year, Block’s brief falls apart upon checking the case citations. It cited 51 Scott Street, LLC v. Sheehan (2019) and Cole v. Stevenson (1998), both of which are fictitious, according to the judge.
“This was an entire body of law that was fabricated,” Fusselman said during the sanction hearing. “It’s difficult to understand how that happened.”
While the court never speculated how that happened, the most likely scenario is misuse of a generative AI platform like ChatGPT. That’s not just my assumption, six legal experts told LAist the likely explanation was misuse of a generative AI program.
Most of the renters in these eviction cases are without an attorney. According to a 2019 report commissioned by the L.A. Right To Counsel Coalition, 97% of L.A. County renters lacked an attorney in unsealed eviction proceedings, while 88% of landlords had legal representation.
However, in this case, the tenant was represented by Lydia Nicholson, an attorney with the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action. After Nicholson sat down to read Block’s filing, she said in an interview: “I felt a little bit like I was completely misreading or misunderstanding what was happening. It was one of the weirdest opposition briefs I have ever received.”
After a hearing to determine what repercussions Block’s firm should face (which Block did not show up for, sending his colleague attorney John Greenwood instead), California’s “leading eviction law firm” was ordered to pay $999 over the violation. That’s $1 below the threshold that would have required the firm to report the sanction to the state bar for further investigation and possible disciplinary action. Greenwood said the attorney at Block’s firm responsible for drafting the filing relied on “online research.” He said “she didn’t check it,” and that she had since left the firm.
During the sanction hearing, Nicholson, the attorney representing the tenant, asked why Block hadn’t shown up in court to explain what went wrong. After all, Block was the one who signed the fabricated filing, Nicholson noted.
“I agree with you that by signing the pleading, Dennis Block, the buck stops with him,” said Fusselman, the judge. “But I’m satisfied that Mr. Greenwood was the person who was actually responsible for reviewing the document.”
Block also did not agree to an interview with LAist. In an email responding to our requests for comment, he wrote, “It is apparent that you are simply intent on publishing a ‘hit piece’ against myself and my firm.”
Concluding that Block’s filing appeared “to be frivolous,” Fusselman threw out the landlord’s lawsuit, allowing the tenant to remain in their home. The underlying eviction case is now sealed, a common practice in California when tenants prevail in court.
Fortunately, this tenant had an attorney. But, as noted above, so many of them don’t, as David Horrigan, Tom O’Connor and I discussed in our discussion about access to justice last week. Mistakes like this may be happening regularly, but many pro se parties won’t know how to catch them. Hopefully, judges will catch what inexperienced litigants miss.
Hat tip to Joe Patrice of Above the Law for his coverage of this story, which tipped me off to it.
So, what do you think? Was the $999 sanction enough for California’s “leading eviction law firm”? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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