Should You be Suing for Civil Extortion?

Extortion
A few days ago I reported on the case of Miguel Mendoza v. Reed K. Hamzeh, which found that an attorney’s demand letter amounted to extortion since it threatened criminal prosecution if money was not paid. The threatened party turned around and sued for civil extortion, and defeated the anti-SLAPP motion brought by the attorney who sent the letter.

Writing about that case got me thinking (contrary to the belief that no thinking goes into my writing). I have over the years seen a number of letters from attorneys threatening criminal prosecution. Should I have been advising the clients who received these demand letters to sue for civil extortion?

Thankfully my research was streamlined by a reader who graciously pointed me to Fuhrman v. California Satellite Systems (1986) 179 Cal.App.3d 408, 426-428. That case, and others I found, held that a civil action for extortion does in fact exist, but that like most torts requires a showing of damages. More specifically in the case of civil extortion, the extortion money must have been paid in order for there to be damages. Thus, based on my limited research, in the case of a garden-variety demand letter from an attorney that steps over the line and threatens criminal prosecution, there would not be a viable action for civil extortion.

That does not necessarily get the attorney off the hook. Continue reading