N.H. jury: lawyer’s demand letters amounted to extortion

by Walter Olson on March 26, 2008

Now this could crimp the business plans of quite a few attorneys:

A Manchester lawyer who threatened to sue a Concord salon for pricing haircuts differently for men and women and then took money to settle the matter was found guilty of theft by extortion.

A jury took about 1½ hours to convict Daniel Hynes, 27, on Wednesday. Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Baker said Hynes sent letters to at least 19 salons in the state.

One arrived Dec. 20, 2006, at Claudia’s, the North Main Street hair salon owned by Claudia Lambert. In the letter, Hynes said prices should be based on the time a cut takes or on the length of hair, instead of on gender. He wrote: “I demand payment in the amount of $1,000 in order to avoid litigation,” according to court documents. …

Hynes said yesterday that he plans to appeal.

“The conviction goes against the First Amendment,” he said. “People have a right to petition the courts. In my case, I wanted to address my concern with the Human Rights Commission.”

Asked why he sent letters to salons instead of contacting the commission directly, Hynes said lawyers often settle out of court.

“I believe it’s more appropriate to attempt as amicable a resolution as possible,” he said.

… In one court document, he argued that the price structure that he saw as discriminatory had caused him stress and mental anguish, despite the fact that prices for men were less than those for women. He said he was being denied an “inherent benefit in being treated equally.”

(Chelsea Conaboy, “Lawyer guilty of salon extortion”, Concord Monitor, Mar. 21; Greenfield, Mar. 23; Above the Law, Mar. 25; Pasquale, Concurring Opinions, Mar. 24).

Prof. Bainbridge (Mar. 25) cites California’s experience with the now somewhat reformed s. 17200 unfair business practices law, which empowered freelancing lawyers to send out demand letters to businesses over a wide variety of alleged infractions. He concludes that the answer is to amend underlying laws which sweep too broadly in banning business practices, authorize damage claims unrelated to actual injury, and so forth. Although I much appreciate the kind suggestions for further reading he offers in his post, I can’t say I entirely go along with the idea that the scope for possible abuse would vanish if only the underlying laws were written properly. At Concurring Opinions, incidentally, one commenter draws a connection to RIAA’s mass production of demand letters against file-sharers, while another warns that for a target to complain to the authorities of extortion, as did the New Hampshire salon owner, might itself be construed by many courts as “retaliation” against the filer of a discrimination claim and thus as grounds for penalties on its own.

{ 2 comments }

1 Ken 03.27.08 at 11:55 am

In 2006 the California Supreme Court addresses the settlement-demand-as-extortion question in Flately v. Mauro, which involved some unpleasantness directed at the Lord of the Dance. It’s got a great discussion of the line between a legitimate demand and extortion.

2 markm 03.29.08 at 3:46 pm

What would fix this: Loser pays, starting with the expenses of responding to a demand letter.

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