Mar 1, 2016

Cody attorney gets nine-month suspension for filing retaliatory suit against neighbors

For filing a lawsuit that “had no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden” his neighbors, a Cody attorney has been suspended from practicing law in Wyoming for nine months.

Laurence Stinson’s punishment, finalized on Wednesday by the Wyoming Supreme Court, will take effect next week.

Stinson had sued neighbors John and Robin McClure a day after learning they’d made a complaint about the weeds on his then-vacant Cody lot, next door to the McClures’ home.

Stinson claimed the McClures defrauded him when they’d sold him the lot for $65,000 in 2007.

His June 2011 suit — filed on behalf of his New Delhi Trading Company LLC that technically owned the lot — also asserted the McClures’ complaints to the city of Cody amounted to harassment.

Stinson initially threatened to seek damages unless the McClures bought back the lot for $71,000. However, by the time he gave up on the suit nearly three years later, he was offering to actually pay the McClures $3,500 if they would agree to not file any complaints against him.

“This unlikely course demonstrates the true gravamen of (Stinson’s) misconduct,” the Wyoming State Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility concluded. “The New Delhi lawsuit was retaliation against the McClures for their repeated complaints to the city of Cody concerning Respondent’s failure or refusal to maintain Lot 10 and should never have been filed.”
Stinson was ordered to pay the McClures $11,641.17 to cover their legal fees and costs from the suit.

He must also pay the bar roughly $25,750 to pay for his disciplinary proceedings — which included a five-day hearing in Cody last September.

The order marked the second time in 14 months that Stinson has been disciplined for filing court documents intended to embarrass someone; he was censured in October 2014 for an improper filing he made on behalf of a client in early 2012.
In suspending Stinson, the Board of Professional Responsibility found he had violated seven rules of professional conduct by filing the improper suit, making false statements and not following court procedures. The board cleared Stinson of five other rules violations alleged by Bar Counsel Mark Gifford, effectively the bar’s prosecutor.

The Wyoming State Bar's Board of Professional Responsibility said Stinson should have never filed his lawsuit against the McClures, saying it was “retaliation” for their repeated complaints about his lot.
The Board of Professional Responsibility also described itself as “troubled” by the case.

“The board believes that neither (Stinson), nor the McClures, were credible in much of their testimony,” the board wrote, adding, “Both (Stinson) and the McClures lacked candor which raised the board’s suspicion about the motivations of both parties throughout the proceedings.”

While Stinson’s actions “no doubt took a toll on the McClures,” the board said it did not believe much of the couple’s testimony about having been “emotionally devastated.” The board said the McClures are relatively experienced and sophisticated business people, “not vulnerable victims, as they allege.”

The sale of the lot
The board’s 62-page report indicates things began with a 2007 plan: Stinson would buy a lot from the McClures, and their company, McClure Custom Builders, would build him a home there.

The McClures initially gave Stinson a document indicating the house could be built for about $371,000 — including the $65,000 purchase of the lot. Stinson says he bought the land thinking it would cost, at most, $400,000.

However, the McClures say their initial estimate was only meant to be a “starting point.” After Stinson bought the land, the couple said the house might cost $403,758.76 — or nearly $70,000 more than Stinson expected.

Ultimately, Stinson bought a home somewhere else and “it appears that both sides merely went along with their lives and businesses,” the Board of Professional Responsibility concluded.

Over the next two years, Stinson continued to serve as the McClures’ attorney and, as a friend, John McClure kept Stinson’s lot clear of weeds and trash.

Things apparently changed after a May 2009 civil trial that resulted in a $4,045 judgment against the McClures; Stinson’s representation cost them another $2,000.

Shortly after that, the McClures say they decided to have nothing more to do with Stinson. Robin McClure claims that when she retrieved some files from Stinson’s law office, she found he’d slipped in a paperback copy of “A Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping with Chicks” and became upset.

Robin McClure said that when she retrieved some files from Stinson’s law office, she found he’d slipped in a paperback copy of “A Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping with Chicks.”
Stinson, however, told the board that never happened and said Robin McClure must have fabricated the story to embarrass him.

The Board of Professional Responsibility described itself as “puzzled” by the testimony, saying it didn’t know what motivation Stinson would have had for putting the book in the bag. Further, Robin McClure’s description of how she got the files from Stinson’s office, and of how the office was set up, didn’t align with how Stinson and his former assistant described things, the board said.

Whatever the reason, John McClure stopped maintaining Stinson’s lot that summer — and he started complaining to the city of Cody about the weeds.

When the city told Stinson the weeds needed to be addressed, he suggested the McClures’ watering was to blame.

“Sadly, Lot 10 has been the source of much acrimony between the (McClures) and myself and the reporting to you of an alleged nuisance appears to be a continuation of that problem,” Stinson told the city in November 2009.

The McClures made more complaints in 2010 and 2011.

In June 2011, City of Cody Attorney Scott Kolpitcke warned Stinson that the city considered the lot’s condition to be a nuisance. Kolpitcke said Stinson became “visibly angry” when he learned the McClures had complained again.

The next day, Stinson sued the McClures and their business in Park County’s District Court on behalf of his New Delhi Trading Company.

The lawsuit
Stinson’s suit claimed the McClures’ complaints were “a purposeful and willful course of harassment” and that the McClures had defrauded him.

Stinson said when he bought the lot, the McClures had agreed the new house would cost no more than $400,000. That they later gave a higher estimate was a “bait and switch,” Stinson alleged.

The McClures deny there was such an agreement and, at the time of the sale, Stinson signed a document explicitly stating there were no verbal agreements or other representations being made by the McClures.

Stinson asked for more than $85,000 in damages in his suit, but offered to drop it if the McClures would buy back the lot for $71,000.

“This moment is your least expensive opportunity to resolve the matter,” Stinson wrote to the couple in July 2011.

The parties reached a tentative agreement in January 2012 where the McClures would buy back the lot (apparently for a net $15,000 loss to Stinson) and Stinson would drop his lawsuit.

However, the McClures ultimately rejected the settlement because they feared it would prohibit them from complaining about Stinson to the state bar.

Stinson, however, told District Court Judge Steven Cranfill the case had settled and told the McClures they were bound to the agreement.

“That you are ... trying to avoid your legally binding promise to resolve this case (is) affirming evidence of your willingness to say one thing and do another; I suspect the court will view such conduct dimly,” Stinson wrote to the couple.

Judge Cranfill actually found that a settlement had not been reached.

Stinson ended up selling the lot to a different construction company in February 2013 and the lawsuit dragged on.

“This is precisely the reason why people have negative attitudes about attorneys,” the McClures' lawyer told Stinson in 2013.
In April 2013, the McClures’ then-attorney, John Worrall of Worland, accused Stinson of using the “bogus” lawsuit to “bludgeon” the couple.

“This is precisely the reason why people have negative attitudes about attorneys,” Worrall wrote in one part of an email.

Roughly a year later, Stinson offered to pay the McClures $3,500 if they’d release all their potential claims against him.

“It is clear that the lawsuit caused an embittered feeling and anger in the McClures and that was not the intent and is very unfortunate,” Stinson wrote in an April 2014 email to Worrall. He added, “this is certainly unusual, but you did an excellent job persuading me that this approach makes the best economic sense and may foster the best resolution.”

The McClures didn’t take the offer and the case was dismissed for a lack of activity in May 2014.

The McClures filed their complaint with the Wyoming State Bar the next month, starting the process that ended in last week’s suspension.

Stinson, who’s also licensed to practice law in Montana, said Monday that he wanted to thank his friends, family, the community, and other legal professionals for the “overwhelming support” they’ve provided.

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