Fine lines and not so fine lines

About six weeks ago, The Law For Lawyers Today published a good post about a problem for lawyers that sometimes lurks around efforts to make demands in order to settle legal disputes for clients — the risk of being accused of extortionate conduct. You can read that post here.

That post was prompted by what was then the most recent high-profile instance of such a situation causing roiling public debate – whether the lawyer for The National Enquirer had crossed any lines into extortion with respect to his dealings with Jeff Bezos and what appeared to be threats to release sensitive photographs of Mr. Bezos unless Bezos would cause The Washington Post to back off an ongoing investigation of The National Enquirer. That post largely just helps with issue spotting and particularly emphasizes the need to know your state’s laws, general federal laws, and a reminder that you can disclose what you need to about a client’s matter in order to get advice about how to comply with your own ethical obligations.

I’m writing today because there is now an even higher-profile situation involving a lawyer attempting to teach all of the rest of us about what not to do when it comes to avoiding being accused of extortion. This instance involves the lawyer previously best known for representing Stormy Daniels and injecting himself into the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in a way that, frankly, unfairly-tarred women who were making highly-credible claims, Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti has been indicted in federal court in New York with charges involving some of the federal statutes referenced by the linked blog post over an alleged effort to extort some $20 million from Nike. You can read the 11-page indictment here.

Now there are certainly aspects of this topic that can be nuanced and properly viewed as the kind of slippery slope on which ethical guidance is extremely wise, but this does not seem to be one. This seems to be a lot more straightforward of a situation in which the line crossing is pretty clearly apparent in the narrative, if the facts alleged can be proven. (Admittedly, part of why it seems easy to reach that conclusion is not only the substance of the indictment but the fact that the lawyer in question was also separately charged that same week in California for what is alleged to have been efforts to defraud a client out of settlement funds. You can read that California criminal complaint here.)

But sticking to the substance of this indictment, these alleged facts are the problematic ones:

a. On or about March 19, 2019, in Manhattan, MICHAEL AVENATTI, the defendant, and CC-1 met with attorneys for NIKE, Inc. (“Nike”) and threatened to release damaging information regarding Nike if Nike did not agree to make multi-million dollar payments to AVENATTI and CC-1 and make an additional $1.5 million payment to an individual AVENATTI claimed to represent (“Client-1”).

b. On or about March 20, 2019, AVENATTI and CC-1 spoke by telephone with attorneys for Nike, during which AVENATTI stated, with respect to his demands for payment of millions of dollars, that if those demands were not met “I’ll go take ten billion dollars off your client’s market cap … I’m not fucking around.”

And then this piece offered later in the indictment as further background to explain:

8. … Specifically, AVENATTI threatened to hold a press conference on the eve of Nike’s quarterly earnings call and the start of the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) tournament at which he would announce allegations of misconduct by employees of Nike. AVENATTI stated that he would refrain from holding the press conference and harming Nike only if Nike made a payment of $1.5 million to a client of AVENATTI’s in possession of information damaging to Nike, i.e. Client-1, and agreed to “retain” AVENATTI and CC-1 to conduct an “internal investigation” – an investigation that Nike did not request – for which AVENATTI and CC-1 demanded to be paid, at a minimum, between $15 and $25 million. Alternatively, and in lieu of such a retainer agreement, AVENATTI and CC-1 demanded a total payment of $22.5 million from Nike to resolve any claims Client-1 might have and additionally to buy AVENATTI’s silence.

Now, assuming that was how things actually played out, it is quite to formulate some helpful guideposts to a lawyer trying to figure out distinctions between legitimate settlement demands and extortion.

First, if you are a lawyer who actually has a client with a potential legal cause of action against a publicly-traded company that involves allegations that – once lodged in a publicly-filed court document – could result in negative publicity for Nike, you not only can, but might well be ethically obligated – to make a settlement demand for the client to try to avoid filing suit. (Depending on the nature of the claims and what your client might actually be able to recover in court, it is possible that you could even demand tens of millions of dollars in exchange for the client’s agreement not to sue.

Second, generally speaking, if what you are demanding money in exchange for is refraining from filing a lawsuit or pursuing some other legal proceeding that a client would have at least a colorable right to otherwise pursue, then you are pretty stable ground. If what you are demanding money to refrain from doing is holding a press conference. You should be worried that, perhaps, you are headed down the wrong path.

Third, if you are threatening a publicly-traded company and you decide to tie your settlement demand with a blatant threat that your action will directly damage their market valuation, you ought to again really ponder what you are doing. Particularly, if you are not threatening to file a suit for a client and, perhaps, unless you are threatening to file a suit for a client that would actually be a suit over whether or not the company has made appropriate public disclosures directly linked to how much its shares of stock now sell for.

Fourth, if part of your threat involves the party being threatened having to agree to let you represent them, you have definitely careened off the path of being engaged in legitimate efforts on behalf of a client to resolve a matter. Not only are you setting yourself up for the kind of fall that can result in jail time, you are also – at that point – likely violating your home state’s ethics rules on the solicitation of clients. Not to mention rules on conflicts of interest because – if you’ve decided to go down this path, you likely have also failed to realize that you are going to need a pretty good conflict waiver from the client you are claiming to represent in the first instance in order to have any chance of complying with your state’s version of RPC 1.7 (and, even then, you would still be likely to have a real problem on your hands regarding your state’s version of RPC 5.6.)

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