Now in Legal Rebels:
Posted Mar 31, 2014 10:45 am CDT
A Georgia appeals court has upheld a verdict for a lawyer who accused her client of misleading her in an initial consultation and defaming her in online reviews.
Lawyer Jan Hinson had alleged the client, Vivek Pampattiwar, lied when she asked him if a divorce action was pending and defamed her by labeling her “a CROOK Lawyer” and an “Extremely Fraudulent Lady” at Kudzu.com. The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct covered the opinion upholding the verdict, issued March 12.
According to Hinson’s version of events, Pampattiwar said his wife had not counterclaimed for divorce in his maintenance action in a separate county, an assertion he knew to be untrue. Nor did Pampattiwar inform Hinson that she would be the sixth attorney to represent him in the litigation with his wife, according to trial evidence supporting Hinson that was cited by the appeals court.
Hinson checked an online docket, saw no counterclaim, and filed a divorce action on behalf of Pampattiwar in Gwinnett County, the court said. The online docket, however, was incorrect. Hinson did not read the documents in the pending case that Pampattiwar had brought to the consultation. Hinson dismissed the divorce suit and took over representation of Pampattiwar in the other litigation after his other lawyer withdrew.
The appeals court details multiple disagreements between Hinson and Pampattiwar. He resisted dismissing the divorce case that Hinson filed based on the incorrect information, indicating he would pay extra to litigate in Gwinnett County and removing a document from her office to try to impede the dismissal, Hinson had alleged. As the case progressed in the other county, Hinson and Pampattiwar “had multiple heated confrontations over billing issues and other matters,” the court said.
Hinson sought to withdraw from the representation, and her motion was granted on the eve of arbitration. Pampattiwar pleaded with Hinson to represent him during the September 2010 arbitration, and she acquiesced. In October, however, Pampattiwar called the law firm because he was upset about his legal bills, allegedly telling a paralegal that Hinson and her staff were crooks, the appeals court said.
In November Hinson’s law office phones “stopped ringing.” Her office staff discovered negative reviews on Kudzu.com calling her “a CROOK Lawyer” and an “Extremely Fraudulent Lady.” An expert traced the reviews to an IP address associated with Pampattiwar.
Pampattiwar testified at trial that he had told Hinson about the divorce counterclaim and showed her the pleadings. He also denied posting the negative reviews. After losing at trial, Pampattiwar alleged on appeal that Hinson should not have relied solely on the online docket.
The appeals court noted Hinson’s testimony that the online docket always listed counterclaims. Hinson also testified that she declined to review Pampattiwar’s documents because he already had counsel in the case, which she believed was likely be dismissed, and she did not want to get involved. “In light of this testimony,” the appeals court said, “it was for the jury to determine whether Hinson exercised sufficient due diligence.”
Hinson tells the ABA Journal the appellate case was “very well decided” and “a just opinion.” She can’t recall the specific amount of the jury award, but believes it was about $400,000.
Asked about lessons learned from the case, Hinson says she screens clients differently now. If she sees “a big red flag going off” or if she has a “reservation or a hesitation,” she will not take the case, she says.
Pampattiwar’s trial lawyer, Reginald Greene, said he believed the verdict was “improper and excessive.” He believed Hinson’s fraud claim related to the consultation to be “absurd” and said a new trial should have been granted.
Greene said his client had a strong accent and jurors may not have liked him. “I think that credibility was at issue on both sides of the table and [Hinson] won the credibility fight,” he told the ABA Journal.