Column: A lawyer tried to win his case with obscene insults. That only infuriated the judge
Lawyers owe their clients zealous advocacy, the bar canons say. But here’s an attorney who squeezed zealous until it was screaming for mercy -- and ended up losing his clients and gaining a harsh rebuke from a federal judge.
The attorney is Christopher Hook of Culver City, who has been practicing law for 12 years. The judge is Otis Wright II of Los Angeles, who was having none of it.
During the negotiation phase of a dispute between his clients and Allstate Insurance Co., Hook peppered Allstate’s lawyers with increasingly obscene taunts, homophobic slurs and eventually even threats of physical violence -- “I know where you live,” he told one of the attorneys, in one of the few lines from his emails without the vulgarity that makes them Not Safe For Work and unsuitable to be published in a family newspaper.
Tell Allstate I am going to water board each one of their trolls that show up for depo[sition] without any mercy whatsoever.
Allstate’s lawyers filed Hook’s emails in court and asked Wright to throw out the entire case, disqualify Hook from representing the plaintiffs and issue a restraining order to keep Hook away from the opposing attorneys.
Wright brought all the parties into his courtroom Monday. Hook was late. When he appeared, Wright hit him with both barrels.
“You just trashed your profession,” Wright said, according to an account in the Recorder, a legal journal. “I am going to do what I can to remove you from this profession.... I want you to resign from this profession.”
When Hook suggested that Allstate’s lawyers couldn’t prove he wrote the emails at issue, Wright replied, “This is not the day to be cute, and I am not the guy.” Since the clients already have found a new attorney, he declined to dismiss the lawsuit. Hook resisted Wright’s urging to resign from the legal profession.
Everyone knows that high-stakes civil litigation often boils down to a battle of experts.
This was not the first time that Hook asserted that the emails might not be genuine. During an appearance Saturday on the podcast “Reasonable Doubt,” hosted by Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos and comedian Adam Carolla, Hook interjected that he had “allegedly” written the emails when Geragos read them aloud, cackling over the language. But Hook also confessed to having engaged in extreme rhetoric.
“I can’t excuse any of the alleged language,” Hook said. “I lost my cool.... You should never send emails like that to opposing counsel.” He ended the appearance by saying, “I’ve got to apologize to my clients and the court and whoever else was offended by my language, because that’s not the way attorneys should speak.” I asked Hook for further comment after Monday’s hearing, but he declined.
The case that brought Hook to grief began as a routine insurance claim filed by his clients, Alan Baker and Linda B. Oliver, whose Hancock Park home had been heavily damaged when a water pipe burst while they were out of town.
Baker and Oliver obtained damage estimates of more than $350,000. Allstate’s estimate was about $170,000, making the amount in dispute about $200,000.
Even before filing the lawsuit alleging bad faith on Allstate’s part, Hook took an aggressive, if not to say truculent, approach. In an Aug. 7 letter to Edward Carrasco, an Allstate appraiser, he wrote, “Your conduct belies a clear intent to shortchange and cheat the Bakers, probably to increase your perceived job performance and put more money into Allstate’s swollen pockets.”
He filed the lawsuit on Sept. 17 in Superior Court in Los Angeles, but Allstate succeeded in getting it transferred to federal court and Judge Wright. This should have been a red flag for Hook, because Wright is known for his impatience with legal flapdoodle.
In 2013, he ruled against a law firm allegedly engaged in copyright trolling which had aired out some flagrantly implausible defenses in his courtroom, at one point refusing to answer his questions about the firm’s legal strategy by invoking the 5th Amendment.
“This court’s focus has now shifted dramatically from the area of protecting intellectual property rights to attorney misconduct,” Wright warned a lawyer representing one of the the firm’s principals. “If you say answering these kinds of questions would incriminate him, I’m inclined to take you at your word.”
(Wright also tossed a nuisance federal lawsuit against The Times in 2012.)
During settlement negotiations in November, the language in Hook’s messages to Allstate’s lawyers became increasingly intemperate and profane and his demands more extreme, according to copies of his emails Allstate filed in court.
“Tell Allstate I am going to water board each one of their trolls that show up for depo[sition] without any mercy whatsoever.” Other emails included homophobic and profane epithets and suggestions that Allstate attorneys had mental disabilities.
Meanwhile he increased his settlement demand to more than $100 million, and ultimately $305 million.
In a Dec. 3 declaration to the court, Hook alluded to the frustration he felt as a sole practitioner facing a squad of attorneys from the elite firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, which represented Allstate. He complained of being “‘stonewalled’ by defense counsel, who would not take my calls, return my calls, or respond to my e-mails.”
He also asserted that he has “a right to free speech under the United States Constitution.” But he acknowledged that he “sought to employ a confidential negotiating tactic by employing harsh language and provocative insults” against Allstate’s lawyers.
He confessed that “perhaps some of the language ‘crossed the line’ of civility and was offensive and inappropriate,” but added that “the language used was ‘for effect,’ similar to bluster or ‘puffery’” and did not mean to “threaten defense counsel, their co-workers or families with harm.”
By then it may have been too late for an apology. Hook’s clients replaced him on Dec. 10 with a new attorney, who promptly informed Judge Wright that Baker and Oliver had been appalled by -- and more to the point, unaware of -- Hook’s conduct.
“There will be no similar issues going forward in this case,” he said.
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