Attorney Extortion Risks Client’s Eight Million Dollar Estate.
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Attorney Darren Findling is accused of an extortion and embezzlement scheme, with his client Stephen Tobler of Chelsea MI, putting his client’s $8 million estate at risk.
Findling, a partner in The Probate Pro, and Darren Findling Law Firm, is facing a lawsuit in Michigan Circuit Court that seeks $5 million for Extortion, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and Embezzlements claims.
Findling, and his client lost a prior lawsuit for mutilation of Mrs. Tobler of Ann Arbor, MI, (his client’s deceased mother). The prior lawsuit was about the intentional mutilation of the brothers’ mother that destroyed the possibility of an open casket funeral.
After Defendant Stephen Tobler agreed to pay a settlement of $30, 000 for his wrong doing, and release his mother’s remains for burial, the two engaged in extortion. So states the lawsuit.
“Their extortion scheme was to use mom’s corpse as a hostage,” Mrs. Tobler’s eldest son, Eric Tobler of Ypsilanti MI, said. “They wanted to me to pay ransom money for mom’s remains, or they would not release her for burial.”
Mrs. Tobler’s estate has specific instructions for Stephen Tobler to pay for, and hold a funeral, and honor his mother’s last wishes – to be buried in her plot. But the two Defendants have worked to prevent a funeral for six years.
“Stephen agreed to be mom’s personal representative,” Eric Tobler said. “Instead of honoring her wishes and using her estate to arrange for her funeral, so the relatives could honor her life, he opted for the $795 cremation special.”
Darren Findling now lands his client in hot water. The lawsuit seeks $5 million from him, his law firm and his client. But could have criminal implications.
There are a growing number of cases where attorneys are being prosecuted for extortion for making unlawful demands in settlement negotiations. Extortion (at the Federal level) comes from 18 U.S.C. §1951 (the Hobbs Act), which prohibits obstructing by way of extortion or attempting to do so, and 18 U.S.C. §875, which prohibits the communication with intent to extort, or a threat to harm.
Section 875 does not define “intent to extort,” yet in cases charged under the statute, courts have used the definition of extortion under the Hobbs Act to define it as the “intent to get the property of another with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence or fear.” See, United States v. Cohen, 738 F.2d 287, 289-90 (8th Cir. 1984) (https://bit.ly/3lGcRWS).
And “property” has further been defined as almost anything that the defendant is demanding, that s/he is not lawfully entitled to, from the plaintiff. Money is no longer the only unlawful demand that is actionable.
Hobbs Act and Section 875 were key in recent prosecutions of three plaintiffs’ lawyers, by the Justice Department in the prosecution of celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti. Avenatti, was convicted in the Southern District of New York in February 2020 of attempting to extort over $20 million from Nike.
In October 2020, a federal grand jury in Baltimore indicted a prominent medical malpractice attorney (Snyder) for attempted extortion under the Hobbs Act. The accused attorney is charged with demanding payment, or he’d publish unflattering statements to the press.
Opposing counsel in that case, contacted law enforcement according to an “August Bar Grievance” against the attorney – which was filed in the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Eventually, prosecutors charged Snyder. After the indictment, the Court of Appeals temporarily suspended Snyder from practicing law and stayed the grievance proceedings pending resolution of the criminal charges.
In June 2020, two personal injury lawyers in Virginia pleaded guilty to transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort (Section 875) and were sentenced to prison.
In Tobler V. Tobler (2021), Stephen Tobler, and his attorney Darren Findling, are charged with extortion. Sending an extortion email with unlawful threats, unless their demands were met. These demands came after the initial case was dismissed, but before Stephen Tobler had delivered the settlement check for his wrong doing, and released his mother’s remains for a long delayed family funeral.
Finding’s actions have put his client, again, in legal jeopardy.
“Lawyer-defendants accused of working against their clients’ interests in pursuit of their own are portrayed by the government as greedy and self-interested, ignoring their ethical responsibilities,” said attorney Bradley A. Marcus with Buckley LLP. “This is a powerful theme that resonates with juries.”
In Tobler v. Tobler (2021), attorney Findling is accused of withholding Mrs. Tobler’s remains to extort – in an attempt to curry favor with his multimillionaire client, Stephen Tobler.
“Stephen wanted to harm all mom’s relatives for sport,” Plaintiff Eric Tobler said. “The judge ruled that the withholding was unlawful. And I am going to get justice for the abuse of mom, her relatives, and her legacy.”
Attorney Findling’s defense presumably will try to portray him as merely representing Stephen in a zealous manner, as he is required to do as a lawyer. And suggest that withholding Mrs. Tobler’s remains was not a sham but rather appropriate under the circumstances. However, after the judge ruled that the withholding was unlawful, it’s unlikely this defense will hold up. But worse, sending an extortion email could result in a judgement against his client for millions. Not to mention the bad publicity for his client.
The lawsuit against Findling not only charges Extortion, but also Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Bad Faith for intentionally withholding Mrs. Tobler’s corpse for burial after a settlement was reached.
Lawyer-defendants accused of working against their client’s interests to enrich themselves presents a lot of difficulties at trial. Findling’s case will be worth following to see if his legal team can develop a defense strategy to overcome the challenges of extortion given the judges ruling that the withholding was unlawful.
Findling must convince the ultimate finder of fact, a jury, that his hardball bad-faith tactics were proper advocacy and not tantamount to attempted extortion. But as with the jury verdict in Avenatti’s case and the guilty pleas in Litzenburg’s and Kincheloe’s case show, doing so will be an uphill climb. Especially with a ruling that the demand was unlawful.
The Model Rules of Professional Responsibility have rules attorneys must follow, Rule 4.4 (“Respect for Rights of Third Persons”), which says: “in representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person …”
Was there a “substantial purpose” to Findling’s email to make further demands before releasing Mrs. Tobler’s remains?
The lawsuit alleges that the purpose of the demand email, was to fully inform Eric Tobler that, unless Stephen Tobler’s ransom demands were met, Stephen Tobler would continue to deny his mother’s burial.
Extortion requires an attempt to obtain something to which the person making the threat is not entitled to. And also requires that the person making the threat, is making an unlawful threat.
In Michigan, withholding money that the court order released is embezzlement. At the time the extortion email was sent, Findling had been ordered, twice, to release the funds he held in his attorney account. Probate attorneys that engage in embezzlement risk harm to their reputation to act as fiduciaries.
Once the judge ruled that Stephen Tobler, and his attorney, were not entitled to the unlawful demands they made, the demands were obviously a sham, with no legal purpose. The judge also made it clear that they had no legal right to withhold Mrs. Tobler’s remains any further – or withhold the settlement. As such, attorney Findling has exposed himself, and his client to substantial monetary risk.
The case is 21-000278-NZ filed with the Michigan 22nd Circuit Court – Washtenaw County.
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