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O.C. Judge Jails Brea Lawyer for Filing Frivolous Suits

`You're basically an extortionist,' he tells an attorney known for preying on small firms.

February 11, 2006|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County attorney who filed frivolous lawsuits against hundreds of small businesses in four counties has been jailed for ignoring a judge's order to stop.

Harpreet Brar, 34, has made a career of suing in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties and collecting thousands of dollars in settlements from nail salons, liquor stores, real estate firms and video stores reluctant to fight the suits.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Polos had issued an injunction in November 2004 prohibiting the Brea attorney from naming unrelated businesses in a single lawsuit -- a tactic Brar used to save on filing fees. Despite the order, Brar filed additional suits naming dozens of defendants.

Polos found Brar in contempt of court Thursday and ordered him to spend 15 days in jail.

"You're basically an extortionist, who is extorting from businesspeople, legitimate businesspeople in this state," Polos told Brar, who was taken from court in handcuffs.

Brar's string of consumer-protection lawsuits began in 2001, when he sued video stores in Artesia for selling pirated videos.

The next year he targeted real estate brokers who failed to include their license numbers on advertisements. He also sued several Vietnamese nail salons, alleging minor health violations, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Howard Wayne.

Within days of suing the business owners, Brar would mail them letters proposing they pay him, typically $1,000, to settle the case, instead of paying attorneys to fight the charges and the money he would win.

"Brar had a cottage industry of suing small businesses," Wayne said. "He'd essentially shake them down for a settlement amount."

The attorney general's office sued Brar in July 2003, winning a default judgment of $10,200 in restitution for 10 nail salons he had sued. The court also slapped Brar with $1.8 million in penalties. Neither debt has been paid.

In November 2004, Polos issued the injunction against Brar, who had been naming as many as 109 unrelated businesses in a single suit to save on filing fees.

Despite the injunction, Brar last year filed three more lawsuits in Los Angeles and Orange counties, naming more than 50 liquor stores in each. He accused the stores of illegally collecting debit transaction fees from one client -- his wife, Satinder Brar.

In addition to jail time, Polos on Thursday required Brar pay $3,000 in fines and ordered all three cases be dismissed.

The California Supreme Court is considering a California State Bar recommendation to suspend Brar's law license for 30 days and put him on probation for two years.

Brar targets minority-run businesses where English is not a first language and there are no attorneys on retainer, said Dilip M. Vithlani, a Norwalk attorney who is representing more than 40 liquor store owners against Brar for free. "The brilliance of Brar's scheme is that it's cheaper for them to pay him $1,000 to settle because it would cost more to show up in court again," Vithlani said.

Judge Polos and Wayne likened Brar's operation to the Beverly Hills-based Trevor Law Group.

Three lawyers in that firm were facing disbarment in 2003 for a similar scheme in which they were allegedly extorting cash from thousands of auto repair shops in Southern California.

They resigned voluntarily from the state bar.

Brar still has 29 suits pending against individual liquor stores in Los Angeles. One store Brar sued belongs to Ken Elias' family. Elias, 27, a law student from Santa Clarita, was glad to hear a judge had sent Brar to jail. But he wondered if that would stop Brar.

"As immigrants, when you get served with one of these, the first thing you think is that they're going to take your house, your livelihood. It's very scary just to say the least," he said. "You can't get lower than that."

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