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A jury in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has awarded approximately $525,000 to a die-hard coupon clipper who was arrested and then acquitted of charges that she falsely obtained steep discounts on household items and Barbie dolls at a J.C. Penney store. In an unusual case of malicious prosecution, a jury awarded the money to Melanie Pianelli of Coral Springs, Fla., finding that she was the victim of an overzealous loss protection manager. Lawsuits such as those brought by Pianelli are usually filed after further investigation reveals the shopper’s arrest was a misunderstanding or a mistake. The shopper who was detained then sues the store for the humiliation and anxiety of being taken to jail. What’s unusual about Pianelli’s case is the size of the award. Usually malicious prosecution cases against retail stores are settled for $10,000 to $25,000, said Andrew Hall, a longtime Miami litigator who was not involved in the case. “The fact that a jury awarded her $500,000 shows that J.C. Penney put this woman through a great deal,” Hall said. Pianelli, 27 at the time of her June 2000 arrest by Coral Springs police, was accused of stealing more than $4,000 from the J.C. Penney in the Coral Square Mall. According to the J.C. Penney loss prevention manager, Pianelli conspired with one of the store cashiers to obtain illegal discounts on merchandise from January to February 2000. The manager, Patrick Borden, claimed that the cashier, Leticia Walsh, was improperly waiving shipping and handling fees for items Pianelli had bought from the store catalog and giving her the store sales price when it was lower than those listed in the catalog. Walsh, who also sued the retail chain, settled her claim for an undisclosed amount a month before the civil case went to trial. Borden started investigating Pianelli after he noticed that more than 50 credits had been made to her J.C. Penney account within a single month. As a result, Pianelli was able to acquire household items and dolls for her daughters at up to 90 percent off the original price. Through conscientious coupon clipping, Pianelli was legitimately buying $60 Barbie dolls for $6.99, said one of her civil attorneys, Mark D. Feinstein, a partner at Feinstein & Sorota in North Miami Beach. Feinstein’s co-counsel was Matthew E. Haynes, a partner with Chamblee Johnson & Haynes in West Palm Beach. Pianelli, whose husband is a traffic officer with the Broward sheriff’s office, claimed she had done nothing wrong. An admitted compulsive shopper who inherited her mother’s frugality, Pianelli claimed that all her discounts were legal. For example, Pianelli knew that J.C. Penney had a policy that by buying a store catalog for $5, she could receive $10 off her purchase using a code on the back of the catalog. If she wanted to buy $300 in merchandise, Pianelli would buy 15 catalogs. Then she’d split her $300 order into 15 separate orders so she could get the $10 discount on each one. That way, she saved $150 (minus the $5 she paid for each catalog) using coupons in 15 different orders rather than $10 on just one. “You could learn a lot from this lady,” Feinstein said. “She’s very proud of how much she saves.” J.C. Penney’s trial counsel, Rhea Grossman of Fort Lauderdale, declined to discuss the case or the prospects for an appeal. A public relations officer at J.C. Penney headquarters in Plano, Texas, said he was unfamiliar with the case and declined comment. In January 2001, a criminal jury in state court in Broward County acquitted Pianelli and Walsh, the store cashier, of grand theft and conspiracy to commit theft. The two women could have faced prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted. By the time of the criminal trial, the emotional strain on Pianelli had begun to take its toll, Feinstein said. It was about this time she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She lost 50 pounds and developed alopecia — hair loss induced by stress. Following her acquittal, Pianelli filed suit against J.C. Penney and Borden in Broward Circuit Court, alleging malicious prosecution and negligent supervision. The case was tried March 15-19 before Circuit Judge Richard Eade. At trial, Feinstein claimed that Borden’s investigation was woefully inadequate. The only person he interviewed about his suspicions was Walsh, who promptly quit and refused to answer most of his questions. The only surveillance he did produce was a three-hour videotape that showed nothing more than Pianelli presenting coupons to the cashier, Feinstein said. Borden never questioned Pianelli or any of the other cashiers who had signed off on Pianelli’s receipts before calling the Coral Springs police, who turned the case over to the Broward state attorney’s office without conducting further investigation, Feinstein said. Borden, the only state witness at the criminal trial, didn’t tell police that Pianelli had received authorization of similar discounts by nine other cashiers during the time she was accused of fraud, Feinstein said. He also failed to investigate the fact that J.C. Penney had written policies authorizing its cashiers to give customers the lower price if the store sales price was less than the one listed in the catalog. There’s no prohibition against customers buying more than one catalog for the $10 coupons, Feinstein said. Every time one of the cashiers waived the shipping and handling costs, there was a store promotion to back it up, he added. “Still, J.C. Penney refused to acknowledge that their investigation was bad,” Feinstein said. During the civil trial, J.C. Penney counsel claimed that Pianelli’s psychological condition was unrelated to the criminal charges and dated back to mental problems she experienced before she was arrested. But the jury deliberated for just 30 minutes before awarding Pianelli $525,045. The judgment includes money for mental anguish, past and future medical expenses for psychological counseling and the legal expenses she accrued hiring a private attorney to defend her in the criminal trial. Although the jury award is comforting, Pianelli still lives in fear of being arrested every time she uses a coupon, Feinstein said. “Whenever an alarm goes off in a department store, she’s still going to jump.”

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