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Coester Loses Appraiser Lawsuit
By Isaac Peck, Editor
It doesn’t happen often but every once in a while the independent residential appraiser gets a win.
This is the case for Mark Skapinetz, a Certified Residential appraiser in Georgia who just won a Summary Judgement in his lawsuit against Coester VMS and Mr. Brian Coester individually.
While the hearing to determine damages payable to Skapinetz has yet to take place, the original suit was for an amount “not less than $100,000,” and the legal filings make clear that Skapinetz intends to pursue statutory and punitive damages as well as attorneys’ fees. Skapinetz is optimistic and sees this as a modern day David versus Goliath victory for himself and appraisers across the country. Skapinetz is, after all, an independent appraiser running a one-man appraiser shop and Coester VMS, at least in its prime, was one of the nation’s largest appraisal management companies, if not its most notorious.
The Summary Judgement in Skapinetz’s favor marks the end of a legal struggle spanning over two years between Skapinetz and Coester VMS and Brian Coester, including putting to rest a countersuit by Coester VMS against Skapinetz alleging $20 million in damages.
Here’s how it all went down.
The case reads a bit like a plot from a James Bond movie and centers around Brian Coester illegally accessing both the personal and business emails of Mark Skapinetz.
In November of 2016, Skapinetz sent an email to several appraisers as well as his contact at Finance of America, who was a client of Coester VMS at the time. In his email, Skapinetz described Coester VMS as a “criminal and fraudulent company” and cited an ongoing lawsuit against Coester which alleged a “history and pattern of engaging in fraudulent conduct.”
Skapinetz sent the email without signing his name to it but from his personal Gmail account. One of the recipients of the email who was working for Finance of America, a Coester VMS client, then forwarded the email to Brian Coester with the message: “Hey Bro because I really like you and I respect you and think you need to see that this (appraiser) is sending me this crap to disparage your name.”
According to the Summary Judgement, Brian Coester quickly researched Skapinetz’ personal email and telephone number in his company’s vendor database and was able to retrieve the password that Skapinetz used to log into the CoesterVMS platform. Coester then used that password to log into Skapinetz’ Gmail account. The Summary Judgement indicates that once logged in, Coester “saw the emails in Skapinetz’ account, including emails from the Finance of America appraiser, as well as another individual, Robert Scheer, with whom Coester was engaged in ongoing litigation.”
Then Coester was able to login to Skapinetz’ business email account using the same password. Coester actually admitted to accessing both email accounts in depositions, contending that he did so “to confirm Skapinetz’ identity as author of the disparaging email and to also learn whether Skapinetz possessed any unlawfully obtained confidential and proprietary information related to CoesterVMS.” Coester also wanted to learn to what extent Skapinetz sought to harm CoesterVMS, according to the Summary Judgement. Coester viewed numerous delivered emails in both accounts, printing four in all including three delivered emails and one sent email.
While all of this was taking place, Skapinetz received a security alert from Google that his Gmail account had been accessed from an unrecognized device in Maryland. Skapinetz quickly deleted the account but upon further investigation, also realized that his business email had been accessed as well, from the same IP address in Maryland.
In an interview with Working RE, Skapinetz describes what it was like to realize his email had been hacked: “When I first got the notification that someone had accessed my email, I felt completely shocked and surprised. Within a minute or two I also got an email from Brian Coester on that account, saying ‘we verified this is you, you’ll be talking to our attorneys, etc.’ Then I went to my business account and took a look at the activity logs, and they showed access to my email from somebody in Maryland. So I started tracing the IP Address and it started to show up closer and closer to the Rockville area, where Mr. Coester was living and working. At the same time, after he got into my personal account, he sent an email to my business account too. It got real creepy. I was beside myself; angry, shocked, confused,” says Skapinetz.
Following his emails being hacked, Skapinetz began to do research and contacted law enforcement both in his home state of Georgia and also in Maryland. “They kept passing me around. Maryland said you’ve got to talk to people in Georgia. Nobody was interested in taking it on and I didn’t get a lot of traction. So I let it go for a while but eventually got into with Coester on Twitter and decided enough was enough, someone needed to stand up to the bully,” Skapinetz says.
In April 2017, Skapinetz filed his lawsuit against Coester VMS and Brian Coester individually. Nearly a year later, Coester VMS filed a countersuit against Skapinetz citing $20 million in damages, alleging that due to Skapinetz’s actions, Coester VMS lost both Finance of American and LoanDepot as clients. “After I got the countersuit, there were times when I was pretty scared. But my attorney, Arnold Abrahams with Cyberlaw, and I did our jobs. We did everything we had to do. I knew deep down it was typical Brian Coester, always trying to bully his way out of things,” says Skapinetz.
Over the next two years, the legal battles took their toll on Skapinetz. “It hurt my personal life very much and I went into depression, and even had trouble with my marriage because of the added stress. Business-wise, it never really affected me with orders coming in. AMCs and clients understood what I was doing. When the counter-claim was filed against me, it really increased the stress and created a very rough time for me and my family,” says Skapinetz.
AAn appraiser for over 17 years, Skapinetz is the Interim President of American Guild of Appraisers (AGA). He also is author and owner of the People’s Appraiser Blog and founder of the 100% Real Estate Appraiser’s Group on Facebook. He credits the support he received from the appraisal community, his lawyer and his wife, for getting him through the tough times. “I received tons of support from the AGA as well as the appraisal community at large. The folks in my 100% Real Estate Appraiser’s Group, and even some AMCs out there. I’m so grateful for all the support I received, but I’m especially thankful for my wife. She went through everything and back again. Without her I never would’ve made it through. She kept me going,” recalls Skapinetz.
While the hearing to determine damages that might potentially be paid to Skapinetz is yet to be scheduled, the Summary Judgement filed in the United States District Court of Maryland is a definitive victory for the Georgia appraiser. The Court ruled that Coester and CoesterVMS violated the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), and committed unlawful trespass to chattel, conversion, and intrusion upon seclusion when Coester accessed Skapinetz’s email accounts.
In the same Summary Judgement, the Court also dismissed Coester VMS’s counter-claim of $20 million against Skapinetz, which alleged that Skapinetz’s email to Finance of America constituted tortious interference with Coester VMS’s business and led to millions in lost revenue because Finance of America decreased the appraisal orders sent to Coester and LoanDepot parted ways with Coester after Skapinetz’s email. The Court found that “no record evidence supports that CoesterVMS lost these clients because of Skapinetz’ email” and that it had “failed to demonstrate any connection between Skapinetz’ email and the loss of LoanDepot as a CoesterVMS client [because] no evidence supports that LoanDepot even received the email.”
The Court also acknowledged that Coester VMS’s lawyers “moved to withdraw from representation, citing difficulties in the attorney-client relationship and CoesterVMS’ inability to afford representation.”
The Court describes how Coester VMS’s lawyers’ “failed attempts to communicate with CoesterVMS demonstrate a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship” and ultimately granted the withdrawal request. Because that effectively leaves Coester VMS without counsel, the Court delayed the damages hearing for 30 days so CoesterVMS may obtain new counsel, but warned that “Failure to do so…will result in this Court proceeding to the damages phase without the benefit of CoesterVMS’ participation.”
For Skapinetz, the ruling is both a personal victory and a victory for appraisers. “For me the lesson is that I stood up for what I believed in and didn’t give up. Coester bullied lots of people, including the Virginia Appraisal Board, by using lawsuits and threats to get his way. I didn’t let this bully push me around and scare me into giving up, even though I’m just an appraiser and they were a multi-million dollar AMC, so in a way I see it as a victory for appraisers as a whole. It shows the little guy can win. This notorious AMC was getting away with things for a long time. We have to open our eyes and be careful about who we’re dealing with and stand our ground when we know we’re right,” argues Skapinetz.
The result is a hard fought victory for the independent residential appraiser. “This wasn’t just about me. This turned into something more and about appraisers and the profession. I’ve learned a lot about the judicial system, lawyers, myself and business through all of this. Finally, I think I’ll sleep well tonight,” says Skapinetz.
About the Author
Isaac Peck is the Editor of Working RE magazine and the Vice President of Marketing and Operations at OREP.org, a leading provider of E&O insurance for appraisers, inspectors and other real estate professionals in 50 states. He received his master’s degree in accounting at San Diego State University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (888) 347-5273.
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by James Scholl
Isaac, nice job. How would an appraiser check on the finances of an amc since most are not public companies?-