Scott Mager, Brian Paruas and Elizabeth Hueber. (Photos: ALM/File)
Hollywood lawyers won a $2.9 million verdict for four members of a family who said they were defrauded by the owner of a check-cashing business in which they had invested.
The Hausmann family invested more than $570,000 in check-cashing company J&C Connections LLC after coming to know and trust its owner, Rodrigo Aranda. They made the 2013 and 2014 investments through their company, Hausmann Financial Group LLC, after seeing what appeared to be certified financial statements and other documents that showed J&C Connections was making substantial profits, they alleged.
But the Hausmanns said they soon lost everything. According to a December 2015 lawsuit they filed in Broward Circuit Court, they eventually discovered with the help of their lawyers that Aranda manipulated the financial documents, artificially inflating revenues and reducing expenses.
Aranda used a certificate stamp from his accountants to mislead the Hausmanns into believing the financials were certified, according to the family’s attorneys, Scott Mager, Brian Paruas and Elizabeth Hueber of Mager Paruas in Hollywood.
The defense argued there was no fraud or misuse of funds, saying the only debt owed was a corporate promissory note for $200,000.
The case was scheduled for trial on Nov. 11, less than a year after the complaint was filed. The defense lawyer withdrew from the case Oct. 4, and Aranda asked for a continuance, telling the judge he did not have enough time to hire replacement counsel and had not been able to review the case file. Aranda is also facing criminal charges in Broward County for allegedly stealing from the Hausmanns, he noted in the motion for continuance.
Broward Circuit Judge John Luzzo decided the trial would go forward as planned, with Aranda representing himself. Luzzo entered a default judgment for liability against J&C Connections.
At trial, plaintiffs counsel showed the jury a sworn statement from an accountant for J&C Connections saying the documents given to the Hausmann family did not accurately represent the financial position of the check-cashing company at the time. The accounting firm also said it never authorized the use of its stamp to certify the financials, according to Mager.
A plaintiffs expert also walked the jury through the changes Aranda allegedly made to the documents to make them seem legitimate.
Mager said he and his colleagues showed jurors evidence that Aranda “turned the company into his own bank account, siphoning money out for personal use, vacations, buying a home and other wrongdoing.”
But plaintiffs counsel still worried the jury might not be sympathetic to the Hausmann family. People tend to think people who have money can afford to lose it, and jurors might presume the investors or the accountants should be responsible for the losses, Mager said.
“We were dealing with a savvy defendant who knew how to dupe people out of money and make it look like he did nothing wrong,” he said. “We had to work hard to patiently and properly educating the jury that the defendant owner — and not the accountants he falsely blamed — was the true wrongdoer in this case.”
The jury on Nov. 18 returned a $2.9 million verdict in the Hausmanns’ favor, finding Aranda committed fraud and should be held liable for unjust enrichment and money lent.
They placed damages caused by Aranda at about $778,000 and awarded an additional $2.1 million for damages caused by J&C Connections: $408,000 for breach of a promissory note, $570,000 for fraud, $570,000 for unjust enrichment and $570,000 for money lent.
In a statement, the Hausmann family said it was “extremely grateful” for the result.
“We had never sued anyone before, and we saw the tremendous challenges our lawyers faced in proving our case against a fraudster who was a master at presenting his side,” the family said.
Case: Hausmann Financial Group v. Rodrigo Aranda
Case no.: CACE-15-022611
Description: Contract and indebtedness
Filing date: Dec. 23, 2015
Verdict date: Nov. 18, 2016
Judge: Broward Circuit Judge John Luzzo
Plaintiffs attorneys: Scott Mager, Brian Paruas and Elizabeth Hueber, Mager Paruas, Hollywood
Defense attorneys: Withdrew before trial
Verdict amount: $2.9 million