A settlement demand leads to criminal conviction…and questions

Questions result from settlement demand, convictionIn “Settlement Demands Have Their Risks,” Simple Justice reports that a New Hampshire jury found a recently admitted attorney guilty of theft by extortion for threatening to sue a hair salon over gender-based differences in prices of services and demanding payment of $1,000 to avoid a lawsuit. He apparently sent demand letters to approximately 19 salons in the Granite State. The attorney, who had claimed that the difference in pricing caused him stress and mental anguish (despite the fact that men were charged less than women), argued that the conviction violated his First Amendment rights and plans to appeal.

In considering the lawyer’s conviction, Simple Justice asks,

Where do we draw the line? People often feel the “lawyer letter,” that demand that you pay money “or else” or stop doing something “or else,” is extortionate. After all, the express threat is “pay me or pay to go to court and then pay me.” There’s certainly something extortionate there.

The question deepens when it’s no longer a matter of threatening to take someone to court if they don’t settle a claim, but when it reaches the point of becoming a crime. Does it turn on the lawyer’s good faith? Does it turn on whether the claim has a reasonable basis in law?

Bear in mind that there are claims brought to lawyers that ultimately turn out to be frivolous or baseless, but lawyers pursue them because they seem colorable at the time. There’s a huge difference between the claim being shot out of the water for being frivolous and the lawyer being convicted of a crime for pursuing it.

Well said. I agree that these are important questions to raise. However, my own line of inquiry differs, since this case leaves me uneasy for additional reasons. I have to wonder what this young lawyer was thinking. I am struck by his statement, reported in the Concord Monitor, about why he pursued this path:

Asked why he sent letters to salons instead of contacting the [New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights] directly, Hynes said lawyers often settle out of court.

“I believe it’s more appropriate to attempt as amicable a resolution as possible,” he said.

What did this lawyer learn in law school? What lessons did his professors impart of settlement and negotiation, of the resolution of disputes? Who taught him that such action, in a case like this, constitutes effort to effect an “amicable resolution”?

Ironically, had he involved the Commission for Human Rights, he might have had the opportunity to mediate his concerns. How sad that this ill-conceived attempt at settlement leaves no winners in its wake.

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