Fact or Fiction: Attorneys Can Be Sanctioned for Insulting Opposing Counsel and Parties

This is a fact!

One California lawyer faces sanctions in federal court for a shocking variety of vulgar insults sent via email to opposing counsel for Allstate Insurance Company:

“Haha. F- – – you crooks. Eat a bowl of dicks….”

“I understand the position you are in,” Hook replied. “I’m going to let the long dick of the law f- – – Allstate for all of us.”

The next day, Hook wrote, “Hey Klee you Cumstain the demand is now 302 million. Pay up f- – -face.” He was referring to Sheppard Mullin lawyer Peter Klee.

“Peter when you are done felating your copy boy tell Allstate the demand is now 305 million.”

Hook also referred to the lawyers as “gay boys,” “shit for brains” and “f- – -tard.”

Hook said he would waterboard Allstate “trolls” who show up for depositions. He also wrote, “Don’t make me come down there and beat out of you f- – -ing thief,” and, “I’m going to go bat shit crazy on you….”

He also wrote, “Well karma is a bitch mother f- – -er. You are going to learn that in spades. I know where you live pete.”

Aside from being rude, the emails are full of misspellings. The lawyer, Christopher Hook of Culver City, CA, represents two plaintiffs seeking to recover from Allstate for a massive water loss at their home in September 2018. The plaintiffs allege they were forced out of their home, and that Allstate would not pay their contractor his estimate for damage and later cut off payments for their temporary housing.

Allstate filed a motion for sanctions against Hook seeking an Order dismissing the case with prejudice (meaning it cannot be re-filed again), disqualifying Mr. Hook as plaintiffs’ counsel, entering a Temporary Restraining Order against Mr. Hook, a Protective Order suspending depositions in the case, and monetary sanctions against Mr. Hook.

In his opposition, Hook argued that he:

“sought to employ a confidential negotiating tactic by employing harsh language and provocative insults against counsel for Allstate, out of an interest in trying to resolve this case only. The undersigned recognizes that perhaps some of the language ‘crossed the line’ of civility and was offensive and inappropriate. With that said, the language used was ‘for effect,’ similar to bluster or ‘puffery,’ and was not intended to actually be considered personal insults. At no time did the undersigned threaten or intend to threaten defense counsel, their co-workers or families with harm.”

Hook also argued in opposition to the sanctions motion that he has a constitutional right to free speech, and California law provides that communications made in connection with litigation enjoy an absolute privilege.

Hook’s clients have since fired him. The federal court has not yet ruled on Allstate’s motion for sanctions and to dismiss Hook’s case.

Does Mr. Hook have a point? Sanctions against attorneys for vulgar insults have been reversed in the past. In 2000 the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered a New York litigator to pay $50,000 in sanctions for his conduct during a case, most notably, for his pre-suit letter threatening the prospective defendant (who was an attorney) with the “legal equivalent of a proctology exam.” But the sanctions order was reversed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeal.

The circuit court found that to impose sanctions under the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 1927 or under the court’s inherent power, the “trial court must find clear evidence that (1) the offending party’s claims were entirely meritless and (2) the party acted for improper purposes.” Regarding the “proctology exam” letter, the court held that although this letter was harsh, and the reference to proctology was “repugnant,” it is “reflective of a general decline in the decorum level of even polite public discourse,” and, therefore, less than sanctionable.

What do you think? Should clients ever be punished with a dismissal of their case for their lawyer’s extremely bad behavior, especially if the clients did not know of it or direct it? Should attorneys be forced to pay monetary sanctions for extreme vulgarity and rudeness?

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