March 19 –The Georgia Court of Appeals March 12 affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a lawyer who accused a former client of defrauding her by making intentionally misleading statements during an initial consultation .
The court also affirmed jury awards for the lawyer on two defamation-related claims based on negative reviews the client posted to a consumer website.
Bad to Worse
The fraud claim was predicated on statements Vivek A. Pampattiwar made when he asked attorney Jan V. Hinson to file a divorce petition on his behalf. According to the complaint, Pampattiwar told Hinson he had a separate maintenance action pending in a neighboring county, but repeatedly lied when Hinson asked whether his wife had counterclaimed for divorce in the other case.
Hinson said those misrepresentations caused her to improperly file a divorce petition in one jurisdiction while a separate divorce case was pending in another–thereby damaging her reputation and “making a fool out of [her] in the courts in which [she] practice[d].”
Hinson later discovered critical reviews of her on the website Kudzu.com. The reviews described Hinson as “a CROOK Lawyer” and an “Extremely Fraudulent Lady” who “inflates her bills by 10 times” and had “duped 12 people i[n] the last couple of years.”
Hinson sued her former client for fraud and libel per se. She added a claim for false light invasion of privacy when another review appeared warning readers that Hinson “asks her office staff to post bogus reviews every where on the internet.”
At trial Hinson offered evidence that the negative postings came from a source with the same Internet protocol address Pampattiwar had used in e-mails he sent to Hinson.
A key issue on appeal was whether the minimal action Hinson took to confirm Pampattiwar’s assertions about existing proceedings between his wife and him–she checked an erroneous online docket–reflected insufficient diligence and precluded her from establishing the “justifiable reliance” element of her fraud claim.
Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes said that determination was properly left to a jury. “We are unpersuaded that the evidence demanded a finding in favor of Pampattiwar on the issue of reasonable reliance,” she wrote.
Pampattiwar argued that Hinson could not establish “justifiable reliance” because she blindly relied on his representation that there was no counterclaim “when the means of knowledge were at hand.”
Hinson said her actions were reasonable because in her experience docket entries “always” indicate whether a responsive pleading includes a counterclaim.
She added that she declined to review the documents Pampattiwar brought to the consultation because Pampattiwar already had counsel in the separate maintenance action and she did not want to become involved in that case, which she believed would be dismissed once a divorce petition was filed.
“Hinson also noted that while clients in domestic cases are stressed and sometimes are forgetful, they do not usually forget that they are ‘going through a divorce,’ and she does not ‘typically assume that a client is lying’ to her about such a basic fact,” Barnes said.
The court agreed with Hinson. “[T]his is not a case of blind reliance,” Barnes wrote. “Under these circumstances, it was for the jury to resolve whether Hinson should have reviewed the documents that Pampattiwar brought to the initial consultation before filing the divorce petition….”
The court also upheld the verdicts for Hinson on her causes of action for libel and false light invasion of privacy.
Pampattiwar argued that the “actual damages” Hinson claimed could not include “wounded feelings.”
The court disagreed. Quoting precedent, Barnes said: “’Wounding a man’s feelings is as much actual damage as breaking his limbs. Injury to reputation is a personal injury, and personal injury damages can be recovered in a fraud action.’”
Judge M. Yvette Miller joined Barnes’s opinion. Judge William M. Ray II concurred only in the judgment as to the libel claim.
Cole & Moore Law Office represented Hinson. David A. Webster, Atlanta, represented Pampattiwar.