Jury Hits Retailer for $350,001; Merchant’s Fight Against Forgery Costs Him $100K in Attorney Fees, $250K in Compensatory Damages and $1 in Punitive Damages

November 19, 2007

Greg Land | Fulton County Daily Report

Efforts to Recoup money lost to a check forger have cost a Conyers merchant $350,001 in a suit for false arrest and malicious prosecution.

A Rockdale County jury last week awarded Marisa Bailey that amount–$250,000 in compensatory damages, $100,000 for attorney fees and $1 in punitive damages–from the merchant, Rejandra Patel.

Bailey sued Patel claiming he had filed a false police report and lied to Rockdale investigators to put pressure on Bailey, whose checks from a closed bank account had burned Patel four times.

Bailey had not passed the bad checks herself but was pursued by Patel after the man who pleaded guilty to forging the checks failed to pay into a restitution fund, said Bailey’s lawyer, William J. Atkins of Parks, Chesin & Walbert.

According to documents filed in the case Patel, the proprietor of Mil-stead Food Mart, cashed four checks totaling $839 for Wesley L. Allen in late December of 2003. Three of the checks were made out to “cash,” while the fourth was payable to “Bobby Wayne”–a phony name, it turned out, backed up by a fake ID.

The checks were drawn on an account Bailey had closed more than two years before “Wayne” cashed them.

On Jan. 2, 2004, Patel called Bailey and told her the checks hadn’t cleared. She immediately went to the store, where Patel showed her the checks and a picture of the man who cashed them.

Patel gave Bailey copies of two of the checks and the fake ID, which she took to the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, which opened an investigation. It didn’t take much work to apprehend the suspect, though; Allen showed up at Patel’s store that very night, and tried to cash another check, stolen from someone else.

Store employee Amit Patel recognized Wayne, locked him inside the store and called the sheriff’s office, according to trial documents. A deputy arrested Allen, found the fake ID and called Bailey to tell her of the arrest.

The next day, the deputy returned to the store to pick up the checks, but the Patels only turned over two of the originals.

In March 2004, Allen pleaded guilty to seven counts of forgery and was sentenced to five years’ probation and one year on work-release. He was ordered to pay restitution.

He never fulfilled any of those conditions, said Atkins.

In April 2004, Rejandra Patel sent a registered letter to Bailey demanding that she make good on the two checks he had kept. The following month, after telling her he knew that Allen was supposed to make restitution, he nonetheless asked a Rockdale magistrate clerk with whom he had worked on prior bad-check complaints to file a bad check citation on Bailey. But, on the line where the person filing the complaint is supposed to sign, he simply wrote “Sig Nature,” according to court filings.

“The clerk had known him for years,” said Atkins, “so he signed off on it without even looking.”

Patel had given the clerk Bailey’s old address from the bad checks, so she never received any notification of the citation. It was only in November 2004, when she was staying at a Decatur County hotel, that DeKalb County Police officers running license tag numbers in the parking lot got a “hit” on hers and arrested her.

Bailey’s mother paid $1,297 into the county’s restitution fund and, after spending 30 hours in jail, Bailey was released.

A year ago, Bailey sued for false arrest and malicious prosecution. After a two-day trial last week before Rockdale State Court Judge Nancy N. Bills, the jury took a little over an hour to return with an award of $250,000 for compensatory damages, $100,000 for attorney fees, but only one dollar in punitive damages.

“Apparently there was one juror who felt like, ‘Oh, he’s had enough, let him go.’ I was pretty surprised at that,” said Atkins.

Efforts to reach Patel’s attorneys, Freeman Mathis & Gary’s John C. Jones and D. Jeffrey Grate, by telephone and e-mail were unsuccessful, and the Daily Report was unable to find a listing for either Patel or his store.

“The key issue throughout the case,” said Atkins, “was that, right up until the day he took the stand, the defendant denied having anything to do with filing the bad check charges, even though he admitted having the checks and the registered-mail stub, with his handwriting on it.”

Atkins, who tried the case with firm colleague Steven E. Wolfe, has filed for a new trial to deal only with the punitive damages. He also said Patel’s insurance covered his expenses.

“Yeah, he won’t have to pay a penny out of his pocket,” said Atkins. “When the jurors found that out, they were pretty upset.”

The case is Marisa N. Bailey v. Rejandra Patel et. al., No. 2006-SV-2261.

A Stone Mountain attorney and his associate have been ordered to pay $42,815 to a woman who sought their help in seeking bankruptcy protection, only to have her case go untended for more than a year.

As a result, said attorney Adam S. Jaffe of the Atlanta Trial Lawyers Group, the lien-holder on the client’s home filed for foreclosure, and she was hit with a judicial lien. Later, when the bankruptcy judge had closed her case, the attorneys sought permission to reopen it in order to file a motion to avoid the lien, then neglected to so.

“This is the worst case I’ve ever seen,” said Jaffe, explaining the mess Edna Shakir stumbled into when she sought the help of The Dan-Fodio Law Group. Shakir and her husband, who had fallen behind on their house payments, retained associate Clementine R. Hawkins to file for bankruptcy protection.

“They didn’t send so much as one letter to help their client in a year,” said Jaffe, who faults the firm’s principal, Musa Dan-Fodio, for failing to see through with his client’s case.

Dan-Fodio did not respond to phone or e-mail messages by press time, and a message left at the office for Hawkins–who is not listed on the State Bar of Georgia Web site–was not returned.

On Oct. 2, after a four-day trial before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane, Shakir was awarded $17,000 from Hawkins and $25,815 from Dan-Fodio.

“Ms. Hawkins has been perfectly professional throughout,” said Jaffe. “She was only learning; we never reallyblamed her.”

But “when we called [Dan-Fodio], he said he wouldn’t pay unless we gave him a major discount,” said Jaffe. “He said he’d declare bankruptcy and we’d never get a cent.”

So far, he said, they haven’t.

The case is Edna Shakir v. Clementine R. Hawkins et. al., No. 2006CV117221.

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