Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Firm Socked With $1.8 Million Verdict for Alleged Forged Signature

A law firm has been hit with a $1.8 million malpractice jury verdict – plus $125,000 in punitive damages – after an associate forged a signature on a client’s work visa.

The lawsuit was filed by a British wildlife filmmaker against Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Fulton County, Georgia Superior Court. A jury returned the verdict in March following an eight-day trial.

In another malpractice case, an appellate court in California overturned a $34.5 million malpractice award against Holland & Knight for its work with a real estate developer “accused of making false representations to investors and misappropriating their cash,” according to the ABA Journal.

It is unclear whether professional liability insurance was in play in either case. Most malpractice policies exclude coverage for intentional wrongful acts.

“Falsehood and Forgery” on Work Visa

The Ogletree case began in 2011, when a filmmaker retained counsel to help her secure an O-1 visa, designed for people with special talent in the arts, business or athletics. She needed the visa because she had been hired to work on National Geographic’s “Wild America” television series and would be traveling frequently to the US, according to law.com.

The lawyer who was working on the visa application discussed the matter with a senior official at National Geographic. The lawyer then “forged” the National Geographic official’s signature on the application and sent it to the U.S. State Department, the plaintiff alleged. Over the next three years, the lawyer continued to “forge” the official’s name when the visa came up for annual renewal.

The defense depicted these actions in less sinister terms, saying the lawyer merely signed the application and renewals on the official’s behalf.

In 2014, when the visa processing center raised questions about the visa, it came to light that the National Geographic official had not actually signed the documents. The filmmaker was terminated by National Geographic the same day.

Two years later, she sued her individual lawyer and the Ogletree firm for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, negligent representation and fraud. She said the “falsehood and forgery” had damaged her professionally, caused her to lose business opportunities, and left her with “baggage” that harmed her career.

The defense acknowledged the lawyer made “mistakes” but characterized the case as “a misunderstanding, not a capital crime,” according to law.com. The defense also contended the filmmaker’s reputation had not been harmed, noting that she had worked on other projects and won an Emmy after her firing by National Geographic.

Investor Fraud and Law Firm Liability

In 2012, H&K was on the receiving end of a $34.5 million malpractice verdict in a case brought by an investor who said he was the victim of a “classic Ponzi scheme.” The plaintiff alleged losses of $16 million in cash and $18 million in loan obligations stemming from a series of investments structured by H&K.

In an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal’s Second Appellate District reversed the jury verdict, saying the developer’s “dishonest acts broke the causal connection” between H&K’s alleged misconduct and the investment losses.

In a 126-page opinion, the court said the plaintiffs hadn’t shown that H&K had actual or constructive knowledge of the developer’s secret misappropriations.

“The court said ‘nothing suggests’ that the firm knew that [the developer] was pocketing funds he received from investors, or that it ‘had access to his personal records or other sources of information’ that could have established constructive knowledge of those thefts,” reports Bloomberg Big Law Business. “The fraud was difficult to detect, the court said. It noted that a forensic accountant who [plaintiff] hired was able to uncover the misappropriations by examining ‘accounting records and bank statements’ that were acquired ‘only as a result of a court order or subpoena.’ The plaintiffs thus couldn’t establish causation, a necessary element of all the claims they asserted, the court said.”


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About the Author

Jay Reeves

jay.reeves@ymail.com | 919-619-2441

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Over the course of his 35-year career he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations.

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