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Talk about a costly mistake: Mark Halpern, a Pennsylvania lawyer, has been found liable for $1.75 million in punitive damages for filing an allegedly meritless lawsuit in a dispute over a family trust. Halpern's client was hit with $300,000 in punitive damages.
The dispute that led to the nearly $2 million award against Halpern started about ten years ago, according to the Legal Intelligencer's Max Mitchell. In 2006, Lynne Boghossian had a dispute with her aunt, Hilda Kilijian, which lead Kilijian to split their joint stocks and set up an irrevocable trust with Lesley Brown as a co-trustee. Lesley Brown is Boghossian's sister and the ex-wife of John Brown Jr., a former Cozen O'Connor lawyer.
In 2009, Boghossian sued the Browns and her aunt, alleging everything from conversion to kidnapping, extortion, and slander. In 2013, a judge dismissed all claims against the Browns and on September 30th, John Brown Jr. won a $2.3 million award against Boghossian and Halpern. A jury attributed 65 percent of the liability to Halpern and his firm and 35 to Boghossian.
Brown brought his lawsuit against Halpern and Boghossian under Pennsylvania's Dragonetti Act. That law allows civil defendants to sue for the wrongful use of civil proceedings where the original claims have been terminated and there has been a ruling in favor of the original defendant. Someone bringing an action under Dragonetti must also show that the person responsible for the original suit was grossly negligent, pursued the case without probable cause, and primarily did so for a purpose other than the basis of the suit.
Here, Brown argued that Halpern should have known the lawsuit was meritless as four other attorneys had informed him that the claims were manufactured.
In addition to the $1.75 million punitive award against Halpern and $300,000 against Boghossian, Brown was awarded $50,000 for damage to his reputation and $200,000 for emotional distress. Brown, having left Cozen, was attempting to start his own firm at the time of the lawsuit, the Legal Intelligencer reports, and the claims against him harmed his reputation.
Halpern, however, hopes to have the verdict overturned in the near future. Several lower courts have found that the Dragonetti Act is unconstitutional when applied to lawyers, as the Pennsylvania Constitution grants disciplinary authority over attorneys to the judiciary. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently considering that very issue.
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