Friday, July 07, 2006

Wanland v. Mastagni, Holdstedt & Chiurazzi (Cal. Ct. App. - July 6, 2006)

Sometimes you gotta know when to quit. And, sometimes, you gotta realize that the nutjob attorney is none other than you.

This case proves the point. It starts with what would be universally recognized as the worst of all possible worlds -- an automobile accident between two lawyer-affiliated people. On the one side is Shannon Mello, who was a clerical employee at the law firm of Mastagni, Holstedt & Chiurazzi (which is now, I believe, Mastagni, Holstedt & Four Other People). On the other side is Georgia Wanland, who's husband is attorney Donald Wanland (with Wanland & Bernstein).

It seems like a fairly tiny accident; nonetheless, the parties saddle up their respective lawyer friends/spouses and sue. Mello hires one of the lawyers at the law firm she works for, Michael Kelly (who's no longer there), to sue Wanland and her husband. But since the folks at Mastagni might be witnesses, she substitutes Christopher Kreeger as her counsel. On the other side, the Wanlands. Things go tolerably for Mello when the matter goes to arbitration, and she's awarded $28,280.69. But a trial de novo is requested, and at trial, the Wanlands win a defense verdict on a 9-3 vote.

Seems pretty mundane, huh? That's the end of it, right? The jury has spoken. C'est la vie.

Not a chance. Don't forget: Attorneys are involved. The Wanlands, led by Donald Wanland, promptly file a malicious prosecution suit against Mastagni, Kelly and Kreeger. To which the defendants -- and I know this will come as a complete and total surprise -- file an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the complaint. Which, not at all surprisingly, they win, as the court finds that there was probable cause to file the lawsuit. (Which, after all, they won at the arbitration, and for which they got three votes at trial.) And, of course, the court awards the defendants their costs and fees.

Now, a rational attorney would say: "Damn. I screwed up. I shouldn't have filed the lawsuit. My bad. Now I'll have to pay." But not Wanland (who, parenthetically, was put on probation by the Bar back in 2002). Nope. Not at all.

First, he promptly files a Notice of Appeal. Then, to make matters worse, he spends three months trying to get a stay of the judgment. A process that prompts a ton of legal work, in part (as the trial court found) due to the Wanlands' "repeated failures to provide proper sureties, and by presenting a forged signature in one instance, and inadequate property descriptions in other cases.” Nice.

Needless to say, the Wanlands lose their appeal of the granting of the anti-SLAPP motion. Which, of course, means they're now liable for more fees; namely, the fees on appeal. So the case goes back down for the trial court to determine the amount of the post-trial fees. Does Wanland learn his lesson, and suck it up, at this point? No way. He promptly heavily litigates the amount of these fees, arguing that he shouldn't be required to pay for the fees that resulted from his lengthy efforts to stay the judgment.

But the trial court disagrees, and awards yet more fees. At which point Wanland yet again files an appeal. Which, in this opinion by Justice Hull, he promptly loses. Generating yet another award of appellate fees.

So let's see. The Wanlands originally had a defense verdict. But then they filed their lawsuit, and as a result, were down $19,518.00 -- not to mention their own time and money -- once the trial court struck the lawsuit and awarded fees. And thanks to their subsequent (brilliant) decisions, the Wanlands are now down an additional (1) $16,940 for litigating the adequacy of the undertakings, (2) $20,312.50 for the appeal and post-appellate motion to recover attorney's fees, and (3) an undetermined additional amount -- but undoubtedly yet another five-figure amount -- for the second appeal (and motion for fees).

Impressive. Needless to say, Donald Wanland represented himself (and his wife) in the appeal. Alongside a junior associate in his firm, Daniel McGee. Who's someone hardly in a position to tell his boss: "Cut it out, you moron. You're being an idiot." Advice that, if accepted, could have avoided a world of hurt.

Let's review the lessons we've learned. (1) Don't be a fool. (2) Get out when you can. (3) Don't represent yourself in a matter in which you're emotionally invested. (4) Don't mess with the SLAPP statute. (5) Don't throw good money after bad. (6) Try, try, try not to be a nutjob.

Good lessons all.