A lawyer who charged a client $19,000 to access his personal file and put caveats on the man's 11 properties to recoup unpaid fees has been stung $20,000 for causing humiliation and interfering with the man's privacy.
A just-released Human Rights Review Tribunal decision says Wellington lawyer John Dean's "concerted" actions breached the Privacy Act by hampering Naginbhai Neil Patel's access to 95,877 pages of personal documents held on file at Dean's legal practice, causing him adverse publicity.
Though Dean demanded more than $19,000 to copy the file, the Privacy Commission ruled he could only charge $7.99 - the cost of a USB stick from Warehouse Stationery.
The decision says Patel experienced "immense stress, anxiety and all-consuming worry" when Dean refused to release the information, which Patel needed as part of court case involving his former lawyer.
Patel felt "helpless and hopeless" as a company associated with Dean pursued legal action against him and put Patel's $12 million property empire on the market in a bid to force him to repay a disputed legal bill of just over $90,000.
The Herald can reveal that Dean was convicted of indecently assaulting a police officer's
partner in 2006 and subsequently fined $5000 by the Law Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, which labelled his behaviour "sleazy [and] sexually motivated".
A 2009 disciplinary tribunal decision warned Dean to "keep his inclinations to grope at women under control", saying his conduct was unacceptable and brought "great discredit" on himself and the profession.
He is now back in the spotlight after Patel took a complaint to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for breach of privacy, hurt and humiliation.
Patel has had his own skirmish with authorities. His wife's Shalimar Four Square in Aro Valley was refused a liquor license last year because of the store's roaring trade in poppy seeds.
A liquor licensing committee found the store had sold 3.8 tonnes of the seeds in just one year – the equivalent weight to two and a half Toyota Corollas.
The seeds are often made into a tea containing opioid, which produces a "psychoactive effect".
Disputed legal fees
The Human Rights Review Tribunal decision says Dean had earlier acted for Patel, his wife Nalini and the Vishnu Trust in liquor license proceedings but stopped representing them in March 2014 after a dispute over fees.
Patel felt Dean had overcharged them, which Dean denied.
In November 2015 Dean assigned the $96,626.09 debt to Rajjo Nominees Ltd, which registered caveats on 11 of Patel's properties, inhibiting their use.
Dean's de facto partner, who was also his legal executive, was the company's sole director and shareholder.
The company filed court proceedings to recover the money and received a judgment in March 2017.
Patel filed an application to set aside the judgment while he tried to find a lawyer, and emailed Dean with an urgent request for a copy of his file in February 2018.
Patel made several other requests but received no response.
Rajjo that month obtained a High Court sale order over 10 of Patel's properties to recoup the fees debt, which had risen to $111,039.27.
The trust paid the debt the next month to avoid the properties being sold.
Despite the debt being repaid, Dean refused to remove the property caveats.
He eventually replied to Patel's information request on March 29, 2018, demanding $19,175.47 for the release of the file.
Patel refused and complained to the Privacy Commissioner who determined that the $19,000-plus charge was unreasonable and that Dean had breached Patel's privacy.
Patel needed the file as part of ongoing court action involving Dean, which was delayed while Dean refused to release it.
In October 2018 the High Court ordered the removal of the property caveats, saying not doing so would be a "gross injustice".
Patel received a copy of his file that month but said there were documents missing, including more than 60 phone messages and invoices.
Dean admitted removing some documents he described as draft or "extraneous".
Hurt and humiliation
Patel filed proceedings in the Human Rights Review Tribunal to obtain a full copy of his file and declaration of interference with his privacy.
The tribunal found Dean had breached the Privacy Act by not responding to Patel's request within 20 working days
Patel then claimed damages and losses of $487,151, and $350,000 for loss of benefit.
He argued he'd needed access to his file to independently assess the reasonableness of Dean's fees, and the delay in releasing it undermined the success of his court case.
The tribunal agreed the file was important to Patel's defence and that having it could have affected the High Court proceedings.
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Patel was entitled to compensation for his loss and was awarded $5000.
The tribunal also awarded him $15,000 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
"The Tribunal was provided with clear and direct evidence of the immense stress, anxiety and all-consuming worry that Mr Patel experienced when Mr Dean would not provide his file."
A builder refused to work for Patel after seeing a notice that his properties were being sold, and Patel's family contacted him offering to help financially "with his predicament".
"Mr Patel gave evidence of his distress and humiliation at this suggestion, given his position as the eldest in his family and the first to arrive in New Zealand.
"The fact that Mr Dean was Mr Patel's former lawyer and that he and Rajjo continued to pursue legal proceedings against Mr Patel, while refusing to provide his file, left Mr Patel feeling 'helpless and hopeless'."
Patel claimed stress connected to the case had worsened health problems for him and his wife.
He was scared he would lose his entire property portfolio after Dean advertised the properties for sale.
This caused him "immense upset as it was important to him and his wife that the Trust grow and provide a benefit to his family when Mr Patel's son passed away".
The tribunal ruled there were no mitigating factors in Dean's conduct, who had ignored a legitimate personal information request for Patel's file.
Dean's pursuit of caveats and a sale order for 10 of Patel's properties worth $12m "contrasted sharply" with the amount of the $111,000 debt.
Those actions were "significant in exacerbating the humiliation and injury to feelings experienced by Mr Patel. In particular, it resulted in greater public awareness of Mr Patel's business affairs, increasing the humiliation."
As well as the financial penalties, Dean was ordered to provide a "complete and full" response to Patel's information request for all documents and files within 20 working days.
Dean did not respond to requests for comment.
Patel said he was thankful to the tribunal and felt encouraged by the decision.
"I am hopeful that this situation can be concluded soon."
Privacy Commisioner John Edwards said the case demonstrates the false economy of not promptly and fully dealing with access requests.
"We struck down the economic barrier of the cost, reducing it from $19,000 to the price of a USB stick. The tribunal has found that the complainant suffered harm. Not only did the lawyer not recoup his $19,000, he ended up having to pay $20,000 to the complainant."