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Courtroom Clerk Sues Attorney, Loses $30k


— July 5, 2005

This one is almost too strange to believe, but bear with me. Frank M. Henton (a licensed California attorney) was working as a court clerk for Commissioner Loretta M. Norris of San Francisco Superior Court. Attorney John F. Prentice appeared before Commissioner Norris seeking an injunction on behalf of his client against someone who was allegedly posting sexually explicit images of his client on the internet and making personal threats (�the alleged harasser�). Commissioner Norris denied the petition for the injunction: The alleged harasser prevailed.

Mr. Henton, the clerk, then prepared a minute order memorializing the denial, and sent two copies of it to the alleged harasser, along with a letter that suggested that the alleged harasser might use the minute order because Mr. Henton (the clerk) �imagine[d] that this is what the C.O. [commanding officer] will need for the military�s record when it is promotions-time� and that it �seems obvious to yours truly that the plaintiff�s correspondence with your C.O. was purely calculated to negatively impact your future prospects with your promotion, and . . . I obviously don�t believe there was any basis at all for the plaintiff�s allegations. . . .�


This one is almost too strange to believe, but bear with me. Frank M. Henton (a licensed California attorney) was working as a court clerk for Commissioner Loretta M. Norris of San Francisco Superior Court. Attorney John F. Prentice appeared before Commissioner Norris seeking an injunction on behalf of his client against someone who was allegedly posting sexually explicit images of his client on the internet and making personal threats (�the alleged harasser�). Commissioner Norris denied the petition for the injunction: The alleged harasser prevailed.

Mr. Henton, the clerk, then prepared a minute order memorializing the denial, and sent two copies of it to the alleged harasser, along with a letter that suggested that the alleged harasser might use the minute order because Mr. Henton (the clerk) �imagine[d] that this is what the C.O. [commanding officer] will need for the military�s record when it is promotions-time� and that it �seems obvious to yours truly that the plaintiff�s correspondence with your C.O. was purely calculated to negatively impact your future prospects with your promotion, and . . . I obviously don�t believe there was any basis at all for the plaintiff�s allegations. . . .�
Plaintiff learned of the minute order and letter, and believed that the alleged harasser intended to use them to try to establish that plaintiff was stalking him or her. Plaintiff�s lawyer, Mr. Prentice, then sent Commissioner Norris the following letter:

Dear Commissioner Norris:

I am writing this letter to you requesting that you issue an amended Minute Order of the hearing in my [client�s] case to reflect your actual ruling rather than the mischaracterization that was apparently composed by your clerk.

I have also enclosed a copy of the transcript from the hearing and a copy of the minute order. A comparison of the two makes it clear that there are many derogatory statements contained in the minute order that are totally [inconsistent] with your ruling and my client�s testimony.

Moreover, [the alleged harasser] is now using the minute order to try to establish that my client was stalking him, which is ridiculous and [inconsistent] with the evidence introduced at the hearing.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

John F. Prentice.

So what did the clerk, Mr. Henton, do next? He sued attorney Prentice for libel over his letter. Have you ever heard of a court clerk suing an attorney over a communication made by the attorney in the course of appearing before the court on behalf of his client? I haven�t. Neither, apparently, had the courts.

So what happened?

First, Mr. Prentice got Mr. Henton�s libel suit thrown out under California�s Strategic Litigation Against Public Policy law (Code Civ. Proc. � 425.16, the �anti-SLAPP� statute). Next, he got an award of $17,383 in attorney�s fees and costs against Mr. Henton.

Next (of course . . .) Mr. Henton (the clerk) appealed. The appellate court affirmed the judgment, including the fee award, and assessed an additional award of fees and costs of $12,174 against Mr. Henton, for a total of nearly $30,000. I guess that if you’re a court clerk, it doesn’t always pay to try to sue the attorneys who appear before your judge.

The Court of Appeal�s unpublished opinion, issued June 21, 2005, is here (Henton v. Prentice, No. A106319).

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