Extortion is a legal concept that greatly impacts marriage and family law in Florida, but it is often misunderstood, misused, and overlooked. While criminal matters may arise during family law proceedings, they are usually subtle and either ignored or seen as a natural part of the conflict.
In this article, we will explore the cause of action (CoA) for extortion in Florida, its elements, and provide case studies to illustrate its application.
What is the Cause of Action for Extortion in Florida?
Extortion, as defined by Florida Statute 836.05, is committed when someone knowingly threatens to accuse another person of a crime, harm their person, property, or reputation, expose their secrets, or assign them a defect or lack of chastity. This crime is accompanied by the intent to demand money or some other financial advantage, or to force someone to perform or abstain from an action against their will.
One of the Most Popular Cases on Extortion in South Florida
In 2018, a legal dispute involving “The Jills” and their competitor broker Kevin Tomilson captured the attention of many in South Florida. This longstanding battle, filled with luxurious residences, significant sums of money, and plenty of drama, culminated in one person facing up to 30 years in prison for extortion.
Kevin Tomilson was arrested and charged with extorting Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber. The Jills had been manipulating their listings on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) website used by real estate agents and brokers. When they offered him a $400,000 check to resolve the issue, he demanded double the amount and was subsequently arrested.
Can You Sue for Extortion in Florida?
A cause of action arises in cases of extortion when the defendant, with malicious intent, causes harm to the plaintiff by forcing them to perform or refrain from performing an action against their will. Penalties for extortion include:
- Extortion is classified as a second-degree felony in Florida, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, 15 years of probation, and a $10,000 fine.
- According to Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code, extortion is considered an offense with a Level 6 severity rating.
- The court can choose to impose probation or the maximum prison term of 15 years for those found guilty of extortion.
What Are the Elements of Extortion in Florida?
The following elements must be established to prove extortion in Florida:
- Threat: The prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant made a verbal or written threat. This threat may involve bodily harm, death, psychological harm, the divulgence of a secret, the accusation of a crime, or any act that may harm the victim’s reputation. The threat can pertain to both legal and illegal actions, as long as it is shown that the defendant acted deliberately.
- Intent: The prosecution must prove that the offender intended to take advantage of the victim’s vulnerability by coercing them into action or receiving property for their benefit. The ability to carry out the threat or the intention to do so is not a requirement under Florida law.
In the case of Duan v. State, the State must establish four factors beyond a doubt to prove the crime of extortion:
- The defendant communicated with the plaintiff orally, in writing, or both.
- Through this communication, the defendant unlawfully threatened to harm the plaintiff.
- The threat was made intentionally.
- The threat was made with the intention of extracting money or some other financial benefit.
For a threat to qualify as extortion, it must be malicious and made with the purpose of coercing another person into performing an action against their will or refraining from doing so in exchange for financial gain.
Case Example Where Extortion Was Not Recognized: Crossdale v. Crossdale
- Michael Crossdale filed a lawsuit against his brother, Errol Crossdale, in a Florida state court in 2010, alleging that Errol unlawfully obtained the deed to Michael’s home in Cape Coral.
- The Florida trial court ruled in favor of Michael in two separate verdicts. Errol was removed from the property, and the silent title was granted. Errol appealed these decisions to the Second District Court of Appeal, which upheld them. Errol then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed.
- Errol turned to federal court as a last resort after exhausting all options in state court. He filed a pro se lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida on August 23, 2013. The defendants named in his second amended lawsuit were his brother Michael, Stacy Bianco, James Bianco, Patricia Crossdale, Linda Worth, and Worthit Realty, LLC.
- The second amended complaint included eight counts, seeking monetary damages for racketeering, extortion, theft by deception, conversion, collusion, due process violations, conspiracy, and fraud.
- The main allegation was that “Defendant Michael A. Crossdale wrongfully utilized the [Florida state] court to scam, swindle, and defraud Errol out of money and property.” Errol claimed harm in each count due to the state court’s verdict.
- The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. Errol appealed this decision.
The court confirmed that the district court rightly determined its lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The state court’s decision became final no later than July 18, 2013, a month before Errol filed his federal complaint. Errol argued that the state court judgments resulted from fraud on the court and should therefore be exempt from the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, but the court did not agree.
Case Example Where Extortion Was Recognized: Duan v. State
- The plaintiff confided in the defendant that her husband was abusive and was being tried in court. The defendant and the plaintiff previously worked together, and this revelation led to an increase in their social interactions, with the defendant developing feelings for the plaintiff.
- When the defendant expressed her feelings, the plaintiff rejected her and refused further social encounters.
- In an act of revenge, the defendant extorted the plaintiff by stating that she would ensure the witness in her husband’s case would not testify against him unless she paid a certain amount.
- The plaintiff recorded their conversations and filed a case against the defendant, charging her with extortion.
- The court found the defendant guilty and convicted her. She appealed, arguing that no physical injury had occurred, and therefore, the trial court erred in convicting her.
The defendant/appellant requested a judgment of acquittal, claiming that the State had not proven all elements of extortion. The defendant argued that the plaintiff had merely experienced mental or emotional harm, without any evidence of physical threats, harm to her property, or threats to divulge secrets or damage her reputation. The defendant contended that the plaintiff’s mental harm did not meet the requirements for extortion under Florida Statutes section 836.05.
The court emphasized that the prosecution must demonstrate a malicious threat of harm used to compel another person to act against their will. While physical harm is generally associated with extortion, threatening a person’s mental well-being can also constitute harm within the context of extortion. The court concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion for acquittal.
The Many Settings for Extortion Claims
Extortion can be described as the use of force or the threat thereof by the defendant to compel the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting, with the goal of obtaining monetary or financial benefits.
Extortion claims can arise in various contexts, including commercial cases, family disputes, property matters, and even cyber extortion. These claims are commonly encountered in the workplace and are categorized as white-collar crimes. Extortion can also occur in domestic settings between former romantic partners, falling under crimes of passion or domestic violence. A cause of action for extortion exists whenever all the elements of extortion are present.
To learn more about extortion claims and conduct thorough legal research, consider using Westlaw Precision™, a tool that aids in quickly finding relevant cases.