Lawyer in trouble over draft claims fights back

As she winds down her collections practice, a Markham, Ont., lawyer accused of professional misconduct for her work on behalf of collections agencies has served a libel notice on a fellow lawyer who complained to the Law Society of Upper Canada about her activities.

The law society alleges Deanna Natale’s practice of attaching draft statements of claim to demand letters breaches the Rules of Professional Conduct, while her own counsel on that matter, Bill Trudell, has described it as a test case that’s unsuitable for the disciplinary process. In the meantime, Natale is “changing her practice,” Trudell confirms.

Mark Silverthorn, a Kitchener, Ont., lawyer who complained about the practice, has followed the case closely on his own web site. In response, Natale has hired another lawyer, William McDowell of Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP, to get him to stop.

On Nov. 26, Silverthorn received the libel notice from McDowell along with a draft statement of claim outlining Natale’s concerns.

“We ask that you remove any reference to Ms. Natale from your website, failing which we expect to be instructed to commence proceedings,” McDowell wrote.

That in turn prompted Silverthorn to complain about McDowell’s conduct. He alleges in a letter to the LSUC that the service of the draft statement of claim to a shared fax machine late on a Friday afternoon “was a deliberate attempt to have persons, other than myself and my staff, find this correspondence   . . . in order to harm my reputation and to cause me economic loss.”

He also suggests McDowell may have contravened the Ontario Debt Collectors Act by sending him an imitation of a court document. None of the allegations against any of the lawyers involved have been proven.

McDowell, meanwhile, tells Law Times he has no reason to believe there’s any complaint against him and says he routinely sends draft statements of claim to provide libel notice under s. 5(1) of the Libel and Slander Act, which plaintiffs are required to do within six weeks of learning about a libellous newspaper report or broadcast. 

“It’s not done to collect a debt; it’s done to provide notice,” he says.
“I’m a barrister, not a debt collector. We do that 10 times a month in our office.”

McDowell is philosophical about becoming embroiled in the saga. “I’ve been around a while. I’ve got a thick skin. I give clients advice and I do what in my judgment ought to be done. It’s not often you get a reaction like this, but I guess it’s part of being a barrister.”

The notice accuses Silverthorn of making libellous comments about Natale and sensationalizing the allegations on his web site.

It also refers to a binder Silverthorn had earlier prepared for Global Credit & Collection Inc., the same third-party debt collector for which Silverthorn says Natale sent  out draft statements of claim. In it, he recommended the practice of sending draft statements of claim.

“Silverthorn nowhere discloses on his web site that he has endorsed the practice which is at the core of his complaint about Natale,” the notice alleges.

But Silverthorn says he has been open about his own history of working for collections agencies. He spent 12 years helping them recover millions of dollars but says he has transformed himself over the past four years into a consumer advocate working for people dealing with debt collectors.

“I used to send out draft statements of claim and I don’t hide that fact,” he tells Law Times. “I’m not proud of it and I’m trying to do things to put it right. I’m doing penance.”

Silverthorn sees the libel notice as an attempt to intimidate him but says he won’t budge.
“It’s people with money trying to intimidate people who are trying to tell the truth. If Ms. Natale thought she could sue me for defamation, she would do it. I think the real goal was for me to take references to her off my web site but I’m not letting go. I’ve put more stuff up.”

Natale was scheduled to appear at a disciplinary hearing on Jan. 11, but it was adjourned after a joint request by the law society and her lawyers. A transcript of a proceedings management conference held on Jan. 5 shows both sides want more time to investigate “new developments” that could change an agreed statement of facts both parties are working on.

“We’re both conscious of the fact that his has been lingering for some time and we need to bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible,” law society counsel Amanda Worley said during the proceedings management conference. A further session will take place in February to set new dates for a hearing.

In the meantime, Trudell tells Law Times Natale is in the process of winding down her collections practice and says ongoing discussions with the law society “render a hearing premature.”
“It has become impossible for her to carry on the business for Global, so she is changing her practice,” he notes.

“The unprecedented media attention, which I think had been unfairly driven by Mr. Silverthorn, has been damaging to her.”

In the libel notice, meanwhile, Natale accuses Silverthorn of seeking “to promote his so-called ‘consumer-advocacy’ practice, while demeaning” her in the exercise of her profession.
But Silverthorn is unapologetic.

“For someone to suggest I’m just doing this for the publicity is a cheap shot. What lawyer wouldn’t try to get publicity to their law practice?

“I do this because it’s good business but I’m also doing something to protect the public interest. I’m making less money now than when I sent out draft statements of claim, but it’s the right thing to do. I’m passionate about this subject.”

Given the latest developments, he fears the law society will forget about the case now that Natale is leaving her collections practice.

In the meantime, he’s planning to write a book on the whole affair. “I have some concerns that Ms. Natale is being issued a walk by the law society,” Silverthorn says.

For more on this story, see "Lawyer in trouble over draft claims fights back."

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