State v. Santa Claus: St. Nicholas in the Courts
For those who doubt that Santa Claus is real, and in honor of the Christmas season, here are three cases where men have petitioned—some successfully—to change their name to Santa Claus.
By Zachariah B. Parry, attorney at Pickard Parry Pfau.
Four days after Christmas, 1999, one Robert Handley, a resident of Franklin County, Ohio, applied to legally change his name to Santa Claus. The magistrate judge denied his petition, failing to find the legally required “reasonable and proper cause” for a name change.
The would-be Santa lodged an objection to the decision and took his case to the probate court. He argued that he had been playing Santa Claus for over forty years, starting in a school play at the age of 14. Handley was “a rotund gentleman with a full white beard [who wore] wire glasses.” For years, children had called him “Santa Bob,” but according to Handley, “I don’t want people to say ‘you look like Santa,’ I want to be Santa.”
The court had to determine whether there was in fact “reasonable and proper cause” to change the name. It did not find fraudulent intent on behalf of Mr. Handley, but nonetheless denied the petition for public policy reasons:
The history of Santa Claus—the North Pole, the elves, Mrs. Claus, reindeer—is a treasure that society passes on from generation to generation, and the petitioner seeks to take not only the name of Santa Claus, but also to take on the identity of Santa Claus. Although thousands of people every year do take on the identity of Santa Claus around Christmas, the court believes it would be very misleading to the children in the community, particularly the children in the area that the petitioner lives, to approve the applicant’s name change petition.
Therefore, for the foregoing reasons, the court finds that it would be against public policy to grant the application of the petitioner.
Although in his holiday role Santa Bob made others’ dreams come true, the magistrate judge put a veritable piece of coal in Mr. Handley’s stocking by denying him his one Christmas wish. There is no published evidence regarding whether Handley appealed to a higher power by sending a petition to the North Pole.
A municipal criminal court in 2002, also in Ohio, had to decide whether a man presenting an Ohio-issued identification card with the name “Santa Claus” had committed a first-degree misdemeanor for presenting a “fictitious” identification card. The alleged infraction occurred five days before Christmas.
The man known as Santa, presenting his own defense at the hearing, presented a birth certificate (DOB: 12-25-383, as in 383 A.D.), several years’ worth of Ohio identification cards, car registration in his name for a 1965 Volkswagen, a certificate of title for the same car, and evidence of a bank account—all in the name of Santa Claus.
After a review of the evidence, the statute, and a dictionary definition of “fictitious,” the court issued a conclusion reminiscent of the verdict in Miracle on 34th Street:
Had Santa been charged with being “fabulous, legendary, mythical or apocryphal,” he might well indeed be guilty facing up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, to sustain the burden of going forward, the state must make a showing that Santa knowingly displayed an identification card that was “fictitious.” This the state has not done. The fact that Santa had an ongoing relationship for 20 years with the BMV is not indicative of “artificiality or contrivance,” for, in fact, under the publicly held records of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Santa has been a “real person” since as early as 1982.
Santa was acquitted and permitted to continue to use his adopted name, Santa Claus. However, the story does not end there. Father Christmas, who was chagrined at having to endure the underlying criminal prosecution, sued the patrolman who brought the criminal charges, alleging that the officer’s actions constituted an abuse of process and malicious prosecution that violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and Fourteenth Amendment right not be deprived of liberty without due process of law.
The jolly old elf lost at the trial court level, and on appeal, the Ohio appellate court agreed, having found no constitutional violation or abuse of process. With three years of litigation over, St. Nick had to relegate his free time to managing elves, eating cookies, and bringing cheer to children worldwide, which reportedly brings him more happiness than litigation ever did.
Similar to the festive goals of the two men in Ohio, Utah resident David Lynn Porter petitioned the district court in Salt Lake City to change his legal name to Santa Claus. He claimed this name change was a result of his strong resemblance to the real Santa Claus and the facilitation of his pursuit of numerous charitable and business activities that would result if his name were officially changed.
The district court admitted that Porter’s petition was in line with the requirements of the Utah Code, but nonetheless denied the petition. The court cited two reasons for denying the request: (1) the name “Santa Claus” would likely “create confusion, misunderstanding and intended or unintended, could allow for substantial mischief”; and (2) such a change would result in a “substantial chilling effect for a person or entity otherwise entitled to exercise their access to the courts” who would be faced with the prospect of suing Santa Claus. In other words, the court was afraid mischief would result if someone’s name actually were Santa Claus, including immunity for wrongdoing against those whose morals prohibited lawsuits against Christmas Eve’s generous visitor.
The would-be Santa Claus pleaded with the district court, and offered as an alternative to Santa Claus the name “Kris Kringle.” The court was not persuaded, and Porter’s petition was denied.
Porter, seeking a Christmas miracle, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Utah. In his appellate brief, his attorney argued, “Porter is the essence of Santa Claus. He has the twinkling eyes, rosy checks, the full white beard and the jolly laugh that causes his belly to roll like a bowl of jelly. Children continually ask Porter if he is Santa Claus.”
After a review of the facts, the applicable code, and the lower court’s decision, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision in an opinion issued in 2001:
On the record before us, we simply disagree with the district court that the likelihood of confusion, misunderstanding, or substantial mischief is sufficient to deny the petition, nor is the concern that some may be unwilling to sue a person named Santa Claus sufficient. The record does not contain any evidence to support these concerns. Porter’s proposed name may be thought by some to be unwise, and it may very well be more difficult for him to conduct his business and his normal everyday affairs as a result. However, Porter has the right to select the name by which he is known, within very broad limits. Significantly, Porter already tells others that he is Santa Claus. Allowing him to legally change his name to reflect his practice of doing so is more likely to avoid greater confusion than to create it by making Porter legally responsible for his actions in the name Santa Claus.
Thus, David Porter became Santa Claus, and the children of northern Utah have since rejoiced. The lower court’s worries proved prophetic, though. In the years since, multiple reports have come in of Santa-related mischief, including breaking an entering through chimneys, theft of Christmas cookies, and infliction of emotional distress resulting from stockings stuffed with coal.
Zachariah B. Parry is a founding partner of the civil litigation law firm, Pickard Parry Pfau. He regularly litigates against parties with deep pockets like labor unions, racketeering enterprises and insurance companies. He has experienced success on both sides of the table, including multiple multi-million dollar judgments on behalf of plaintiffs in fraud cases and zero-dollar defense verdicts for his clients who were unjustly sued. In addition to litigating, Zach also teaches torts, contracts and Nevada practice and procedure at UNLV’s paralegal program.
Zach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 702-910-4300, or through his firm’s website at www.pickardparry.com.
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