I see this a lot in the wrongful termination context, and I even warn callers, who are seeking to have their case handled on a contingency basis, that they will likely encounter this type of attorney if they make enough calls. I call these attorneys “Uncommitted Extortionists.” The Uncommitted Extortionist is an attorney who will take any case on a contingency, hoping that he can make a quick score, but knowing that he will kick the client to the curb if he can’t. They are usually pretty easy to spot, because they take cases you’d have to be crazy to take.
In today’s example, we represent a business client who is suing for Internet defamation. The defendant in this case has engaged in a form of Internet defamation that has become all the rage in Europe, and is now spreading to our shores. The defamer posts a really bad, false review about a business. Often the review will be about a restaurant, and the defamer will falsely claim that he got food poisoning from the food, and noticed cockroaches everywhere as he was leaving the restaurant. Not that unusual even here in America, but most often they are published by an anonymous competitor, hoping to drive business away from the victim, or from someone with a beef with the business, such as a terminated employee.
The European twist is that the defamer makes the comments in order to extort money from the business. After the review appears, the defamer contacts the business and offers to take it down for a set price. A modern-day protection racket. In some particularly brazen cases I have read about, the extortionist confronts the business owner while still sitting at the table. He calls the owner over, shows him the review, and says, “comp my meal or I hit send.”
So, back to our case. The defendant had been terminated from the business some years earlier, but seeing that our client’s business was doing very well, the defendant posted scathing reviews on multiple websites, falsely claiming that he had a bad experience with our client, and then offered to take them down in exchange for money. We responded by suing him for defamation, and I was soon contacted by his attorney. In the worst case of posturing I have ever seen, the attorney claimed that not only was he going to defeat our defamation lawsuit by proving that the statements were true, he was going to cross-complain for damages arising from the termination, claiming that in reality his client had been an owner, and was now entitled to a share in the business. Never mind that the defendant had been terminated ten years earlier, and that even if the allegations were true, the statute of limitations had long since passed. He demanded $50,000 to forgo pursuing his lapsed action, and for that payment, his client would take down the defamatory posts. We politely declined his offer. I guess he hasn’t been keeping up with what is happening to Michael Avenatti.
True to his word, along with his answer came a cross-complaint, not suing for the alleged ownership interest, but instead suing my client for abuse of process for suing his client – a clear SLAPP. I responded to the cross-complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion, and that generated another call from the attorney. His efforts for a quick settlement thwarted, he was calling to tell me he was subbing out of the case.
Hence the name, Uncommitted Extortionist. The attorney had no problem attempting to use the legal process to extort money based on a bogus claim, and he was even willing to invest the time to draft a (really bad) cross-complaint, but that was as far as he was willing to go. The effort having failed, he was unwilling to spend any more time on the extortion attempt. With no shame, he set the client up for an anti-SLAPP motion, and then abandoned him before he had to deal with it.
Don’t be that attorney. The joy of having a big, fat pipeline of business coming into your practice is that you can be very selective about the cases you take. You will never be tempted to pull an Avenatti.