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When Brenda D. Chastain decided in 1996 she needed a lawyer to fight an insurance company, she turned to David C. Joel, the personal injury lawyer who’s built a practice advertising on television and on the backs of telephone books. “I thought, if they can advertise on TV, they’ve got to be OK,” said Chastain, a53-year-old former office manager from Stockbridge, Ga. Joel’s firm did eventually secure a $25,000 settlement for Chastain, but, in heropinion, the firm was not “OK.” Her complaints about the firm stemmed from theactions of a nonlawyer employee who falsely represented himself as an attorney. He initially settled Chastain’s suit for $10,000 without telling her. On Tuesday, a Georgia Court of Appeals panel upheld a $4,000 breach of fiduciaryduty verdict Chastain won last year against Joel’s firm, known on TV as Joel &Associates, but formally, David C. Joel, Attorney at Law, P.C. The court did,however, remand Chastain’s $20,000 attorney fee award to a Fulton County trialjudge for a rehearing. Joel responded in an interview that the Court of Appeals should have thrown outthe verdict. Chastain “was not harmed in the slightest” by the firm, he said. After firing the nonlawyer, who subsequently was arrested for unauthorizedpractice of law, the firm succeeded in getting Chastain a $25,000 settlementwith the insurance company. That was the highest amount available under thepolicy owned by the person who hit Chastain’s car. But Presiding Judge Gary B. Andrews and Judges Frank M. Eldridge and M. YvetteMiller saw it differently and, in the decision written by Andrews, offered anextensive look into how Joel’s high-volume law practice worked. Andrews reported that Chastain retained Joel’s firm in May 1996 to represent her in a personal injury claim stemming from a car accident. Chastain said that the insurance company for the other driver, who was at fault, was not paying her medical bills. “Joel was not in the P.C.’s office on a regular basis, took no part in handling the cases, and was notified by weekly faxes of case dispositions after they had settled,” Andrews wrote. David C. Joel P.C. v. Chastain, No. A01A2501 (Ga. Ct. App. March 12, 2002). Andrews noted evidence showing that while Chastain’s case was being handled, thefirm employed one attorney other than Joel at the Atlanta office and 11 non-attorney support staffers to handle up to 500 pending cases. The staffers, called “case negotiators,” were authorized to relay settlement offers between clients and insurance companies. “Joel testified that there was no procedure in place for client files to be reviewed by an attorney on a periodic basis, and he acknowledged that the system he created for operation of the P.C. was fraught with potential trouble,” Andrews added. Under that system, a case negotiator named Terry Lee came to work on Chastain’s case, and he introduced himself as a lawyer for the firm, Andrews wrote. When the insurance company offered $10,000 to settle the case, Chastain rejected the offer. But a few days later, settlement and release documents indicating she had accepted it arrived at her home. Evidence showed that Lee told the insurance company Chastain had accepted without telling her, Andrews added, although she did not learn this until months after the episode, when George L. French, a lawyer from Joel’s firm, told her. Charges against Lee were dropped after he agreed to cooperate in another investigation, said his lawyer, Dwight L. Thomas. Andrews wrote that “Chastain testified she experienced severe emotional distress and depression as a result of the manner in which the P.C. handled her case, especially the misrepresentations by Lee.” Chastain sued Joel and his P.C. for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and violating the state Fair Business Practices Act. WIN ON BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY The jury ruled against Chastain in all but the breach of fiduciary duty claim against the P.C. It awarded her $4,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in attorney fees. At trial, before Senior Judge Charles L. Carnes, sitting in Fulton SuperiorCourt, Joel was represented by Martin H. Rubin, but he represented himself onappeal. Chastain was represented by Warren R. Hinds. Andrews wrote that the panel found that “the jury was authorized by the evidence to conclude that Joel deliberately organized his P.C. in a manner which allowed Lee, without adequate supervision by an attorney, to mishandle Chastain’s case, and that this breached the P.C.’s fiduciary duty to apply its best skill, zeal, and diligence in representing Chastain.” Mental distress damages are generally not recoverable unless proof of intentional misconduct is made, Andrews added. Evidence showed that Lee’s actions were on behalf of the P.C., and that Joel intentionally instituted the practice that “provided inadequate supervision” of Lee and allowed the jury to award Chastain the $4,000, Andrews wrote. However, the panel concluded, Chastain was entitled only to attorney fees attributable to the breach of fiduciary duty claim on which she prevailed. Thus, Carnes must decide after a hearing how much of Hinds’ fees come from the successful breach of fiduciary duty claim. Joel said he has phased out the case negotiator system and is in the office every day now. He said that he has taken a more hands-on approach since the Lee episode first came to his attention: “I decided I was the best person to manage the firm.” He wouldn’t discuss the firm’s caseload, but he said there are two attorneys — himself and one other — plus about eight staffers in his Atlanta office. The firm also refers work to outside attorneys. The Chastain case, he said, begs the question, “How many non-lawyer staff members can a lawyer supervise before it’s too many?” He added, “Customer service issues shouldn’t give rise to claims of mental distress.”

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