These days, if a day ends in “y,” it feels like I’m giving another CLE. At each, I’ve been reminding lawyers of the importance of communicating reasonable expectations to the client at the outset of the client-lawyer relationship. Alas, I’d never stopped to consider how that might apply to a lawyer who self-represents. Which brings me to today’s post.
I’ve never forgotten a piece of advice that the Dean of GW Law School gave to my incoming 1L class. It went something like this: “as you read the cases, yes, pay attention to the legal analysis. But never lose sight of the crazy disputes that people find themselves in. Your job will include advising them to drop or resolve those disputes.”
Indeed! The duty to competently communicate candid legal advice.
Anyhow, today I post to update you on a matter that I’ve been following a few years. I’ve long wondered if it would result in a Was That Wrong? post. It didn’t, but only because I reserve that column for disbarments. Nevertheless, the conduct at issue is definitely wrong.
As reported by the ABA Journal, the Legal Profession Blog, and others, a lawyer in D.C. has been suspended for 90 days because of conduct associated with his relentless pursuit of his dispute with a dry-cleaning business. The D.C. Court of Appeals order imposing the suspension is here. I’m not sure I can do it justice, but I’ll do my best.
Many years ago, the lawyer dropped off a pair of pants at the dry cleaner. He alleges that when he returned, the dry cleaner had lost the pants and tried to give him pants that were not his. The lawyer demanded $1,150.
Now, I’ve never paid that much for pants, but nor have I ever worked in D.C. So, who knows?
Alas, by the time the lawyer sued the dry cleaner, he sought $15,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress and $45,000 in punitive damages. Some of his legal theories were premised upon the fact that the dry cleaners had hung a sign that said, “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and that he’d been left far from satisfied.
As the case proceeded, the lawyer’s monetary demands skyrocketed. Here’s an excerpt from the Court’s opinion:
- “His claims for emotional damages increased to $3,000,000 by trial. He asserted that he was entitled to $90,000 to obtain a rental car so he could travel to a different dry cleaner in the city. He claimed that he had expended 1,200 hours of work on the matter, worth $500,000 in attorney’s fees. He sought prospective relief requiring [the defendants] to pay him $10,000 within twenty-four business hours if he notified them that they were not providing him with acceptable service.”
Then, after a summary of the lawyer’s various claims as to why the damages should be multiplied, the kicker:
- By the time the Joint Pre-Trial Statement was filed, [the lawyer] claimed that he was owed more than $67,000,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.”
Remember: he’d dropped off ONE pair of pants.
After rejecting a $12,000 offer of judgment, the lawyer lost at trial. His appeal was not successful.
An interesting aside: the record suggests that, in fact, the dry cleaners did not lose the pants! Indeed, from one of the many opinions issued along the way:
- “The Court found [the dry cleaner] to be very credible, and her explanation that she recognized the disputed pants as belonging to [the lawyer] because of the unusual belt inserts was much more credible than his speculation that she took a pair of unclaimed pants from the back of the store and altered them to match his measurements.”
Anyhow, in the end, the DC Court of Appeals suspended the lawyer’s law license for 90 days after concluding that he violated the rules that prohibit the pursuit of frivolous claims and conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
All over a pair of pants. I can’t help but think that this story is exactly what Dean Friedenthal meant when he gave the advice that he did to my incoming class. And it might also both illustrate and reinforce the long-held notion about lawyers who represent themselves.