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Legal Ethics

Profanity-Laden Emails Earn Sanctions for California Lawyer (1)

March 2, 2020, 6:47 PM; Updated: March 2, 2020, 8:15 PM

A California plaintiff’s attorney who cursed in emails at opposing counsel representing Allstate Insurance Co. and threatened them with waterboarding and face tattoos must pay $17,808 in sanctions, according to an order from the Central District of California.

Christopher G. Hook “acted in bad faith by sending numerous profanity-laced emails, using discriminatory epithets, and repeatedly threatening physical violence against Allstate’s witnesses, attorneys, and their families purportedly as negotiation tactics,” District Judge Otis D. Wright II said.

Hook plans to appeal Wright’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, he said March 2. He declined to answer additional questions.

Hook opened emails to Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP with such greetings as “hey f*** face” and “hey sh*t for brains.” As depositions approached, he let opposing counsel know that “I am going to water board each one of their trolls that show up for depo without any mercy whatsoever.”

At the center of this circus was a fairly straightforward breach of contract claim: Roughly $200,000 was in dispute between Allstate and a pair of homeowners trying to repair water damage in their 4,000-square-foot home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles. Representing clients from the genteel, historic neighborhood didn’t stop Hook from approaching Sheppard Mullin with settlement offers along the lines of “306 million[,] gay boys.”

“Allstate regrets being forced to put this language in the record,” Sheppard Mullin attorneys told the court in their ex parte application for disqualification, sanctions, and a restraining order, filed Nov. 26.

The plaintiffs retained new counsel at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and informed the court that they, too, were surprised and appalled by Hook’s communications on their behalf.

Hook showed up late for the emergency hearing held in his honor and got an earful from Wright on his punctuality and behavior.

Sanctions are meant to “vindicate judicial authority” over the conduct of the attorneys before the court, rather than to remedy a party’s injury, Wright explained in his Feb. 28 order. To arrive at the $17,808 figure, Wright multiplied the hours Sheppard Mullin attorneys billed for the case by their hourly rate.

Wright, however, found the cost and fees records submitted by Sheppard Mullin to the court to be “excessive and duplicative.”

He docked their calculations by 10% for using block billing, and an additional 10% for duplicative entries. The firm attempted to add 20 hours of billed time—which Wright rejected—and failed to justify why two partners on the case had a higher per-hour billing rate than the third.

The party demanding fees and sanctions carries the burden to support its request, and here, Sheppard Mullin didn’t provide any evidence on prevailing market rates or rate determinations from similar lawsuits, Wright said. Despite his clear distaste for Hook’s behavior, Wright admitted that much of Sheppard Mullin’s work in the case consisted of travel time and research tasks which “do not require great litigation skill.”

The homeowner plaintiffs and Allstate have settled the suit and told the court in early February that they plan to stipulate to dismissal. Having been unable to live in their Hancock Park residence since the September 2018 water damage, the plaintiffs have lived in a $15,000-per-month rental home Allstate had paid for during repairs.

Sheppard Mullin represents Allstate. Barnes & Thornburg represents the plaintiffs. They were previously represented by the Law Office of Christopher G. Hook in Culver City, Calif.

The case is Baker v. Allstate Ins. Co., C.D. Cal., No. 19-cv-08024, 2/28/20.

(Updated with comment from Mr. Hook.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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