Thursday, December 1, 2005
Judgment Against Lawyer for Filing ‘Shakedown’ Suits Upheld
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A $1.787 million default judgment against an attorney who filed numerous actions, described by the court as “shakedown” lawsuits, accusing small businesses of unfair competition or false advertising was upheld yesterday by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Orange Superior Court Judge Peter Polos did not abuse his discretion in denying Harpreet Brar’s motion to set aside the default, Presiding Justice David Sills wrote for Div. Three.
The trial judge, Sills concluded, acted reasonably in rejecting Brar’s claim that he committed excusable neglect in leaving the answer to the complaint in his home mailbox, from which it was allegedly stolen.
Sills also rejected the contention that the judgment exceeded the prayer of the complaint filed by Attorney General Bill Lockyer under the Unfair Competition Law.
The complaint, Sills explained, alleged that Brar sued 1,500 defendants and that the naming of each defendant was a separate violation of the law. Since the complaint sought a civil penalty of $2,500 per violation, for an aggregate sum far greater than the amount of the judgment, the complaint gave Brar fair notice of the potential penalties, Sills said.
The essence of the complaint, Sills explained, was that Brar had filed baseless suits against nail salons, similar to those filed by the now-defunct Trevor Law Group, whose attorneys resigned from the State Bar rather than face discipline for their conduct.
Brar originally attacked the suit by filing an anti-SLAPP motion, which was denied. The denial was affirmed on appeal, which the Court of Appeal held was frivolous, but the appeal “bought time,” Sills noted.
Brar did not answer the complaint after the affirmance, however, and the default judgment was entered.
In moving to set the default aside, Brar declared that there had been numerous thefts from mailboxes in his area, including a theft of a check—which was later altered and cashed by a forger—from his own mailbox.
Sills, however, said the defendant did not demonstrate excusable neglect, especially in the absence of a more specific showing as to whether the other thefts occurred before or after he put his answer in the mailbox.
“Given Brar’s refusal to pin himself down on a time frame for the mailbox thefts, the trial court was thus justified in concluding, at the very least, that Brar knew of the risks of putting mail out for collection in his neighborhood prior to putting his answer in what was a remarkably theft-prone mailbox, and thus proceeded without due regard for a known risk,” the presiding justice wrote. “If Brar had really been diligent about his answer given the supposed likelihood of mail theft in his neighborhood, he could have driven to a local post office and put the envelope inside a mailbox himself.”
Sills also questioned Brar’s credibility, in light of his having declared that the mailbox thefts occurred over the course of the summer of 2004, while at the same time claiming in his declaration that he had no reason to suspect that the answer had not reached the court until Sept. 6, when he received the notice of default.
Brar, a Brea sole practitioner admitted to the State Bar in 2000, could not be reached for comment last evening.
The case is People ex rel. Lockyer v. Brar, G034755.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company