Should You be Suing for Civil 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. The State Bar might still decide to purse the violation, and a criminal prosecution would still be possible. Also, the case might still be pled as an intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other basis. Also, as seen in Flatley v. Mauro and now Mendoza v. Hamzeh, damages or not the threatened individuals are no doubt taking great satisfaction in turning the tables on the threatening attorneys.

In my brief research on the issue, I came across the interesting case of Libarian v. State Bar (1952) 38 Cal.2d 328, where the State Bar did take action against an improper demand letter.

The case involved an attorney named M. Stephen Libarian (bar number 13250 – wow!).  Mr. Libarian, who has since passed on, appears to have been a reasonable guy, but apparently just got caught up in the moment as a zealous advocate, as acknowledged by the dissenting opinion in this case. In the case at hand, he represented Abe Siegel in an action for unpaid wages. The case went to trial, and Libarian was apparently so frustrated by what he believed to be the perjured testimony of the employer, that following the trial he wrote a letter to the opposing attorney which stated:

This criminal act of your client will be a basis for a new trial and also for a criminal complaint. . . . Here is my offer. Let your client pay Mr. Abe Siegel for 2 days' work, or 16 times $2.25, the total of Thirty Six and no/100 Dollars, and his perjuries will remain unpunished. . . . I must receive your check for $36.00 plus $6.50 court costs I had advanced out of my own pocket, that is to say the sum of Forty One and 50/100 Dollars, on the 31st. day of October, 1950. If you fail to send said $41.50 until midnight of Tuesday, the 31st. day of October, 1950, on the 1st. day of Nov. 1950, I'll file a motion for a new trial, and my client will be in the District Attorney's office to file a complaint for perjury against your client.

Even in 1952, $41.50 was not a lot of money, so it appears that this was more a case of righteous indignation and less of civil extortion. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ordered Libarian suspended for six months, with the sole dissenting Justice stating that a reprimand would have been sufficient.

5 thoughts on “Should You be Suing for Civil Extortion?

  1. Pingback: Anti-SLAPP Motions | Demand Letters | Miguel Mendoza v. Reed K. Hamzeh | The Practice of Law

  2. You should Google the case; “1st District Court of Appeal, A136379” or Google “Leo B. Siegel, Superior Court”and you should find the case where the Attorney lost both the Fee Sanction award of $16,000, then it was sent back to the Trail Court for Applet Fees of $192,000. You should notice that the Attorney and his Client did not appeal the Trial Court’s Order of PC 518-528, and 496.
    The Trial has not even started yet.
    In the Trial of Flatley vs Mauro Mr Flatley was awarded Punitive Damages I believe was 100 million, which the Defendant can not Bankrupt.

    The strangest thing is the Dumas’s Attorney was the one that cited the Flatley case as his defense. Oh and yes that really is their name Dumass.

    • Great case! Thanks for the heads-up. Remember the commercial where the job applicant being interviewed by a Mr. Dumass keeps pronouncing his name the way one might expect. After he’s all done, the interviewer just says, “the name is, ‘do-moss'”.

  3. I noticed that you changed your posting based on some other attorney stating that unless there is Money Paid there would be no Damages of Extortion.

    I ask you to reread the Flatley v. Mauro case where Punitive Damages were paid, and to read the case were the Appellant court relied on the Flatley case also. The California State Punitive Statue 518-52xx states that Extortion or Attempted Extortion is the same. In reading the Natale vs Siegel, Damages existed by his client Dumas taking the advise of their attorney having a hidden agenda as the Appellant court depicted.

    • You’re mixing a lot of metaphors, as it were.

      Flatley v. Mauro has nothing to do with whether you should be “Suing for Suing for Civil Extortion?”, as my article asked, or whether damages are required for a civil cause of action. The point of Flatley v. Mauro was only whether otherwise protected speech (an attorney’s demand letter) can lose its protected status if it crosses the line into extortion. While it is true that the plaintiff sued for civil extortion, and that is what brought about the anti-SLAPP motion, the case never discusses the elements of civil extortion, or whether such a claim even exists. Beyond stating that civil extortion was one of the causes of action, the court never discusses the claim. The case you site, NATALE v. SIEGEL (which by the way is an unpublished decision and therefore is not precedent) involves the same issue. By the same token, the wording of the criminal extortion statute is relevant, but only to determine whether the speech is illegal and therefore unprotected.

      With all that said, I have found authority that I believe supports a civil cause of action for extortion, even where no money was paid, and recently included the claim in an action. We’ll see if it flies.

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