Skapinetz Wins Against Coester VMS

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Skapinetz Wins Against Coester VMS
by Isaac Peck, Editor

Longtime readers of Working RE may remember the case of Mark Skapinetz vs. Coester VMS, and vice versa.

The case dates back to late 2016 and turned into a legal spat not long after. Skapinetz sued Coester VMS, a now defunct appraisal management company (AMC), and Brian Coester, the AMC’s President, for hacking his email account. In response, Coester VMS counter-sued Skapinetz alleging $20 million in damages.

Now, after a nearly four-year legal battle, Skapinetz has finally been awarded damages in the case and is able to put the case behind him.

Backstory
Beginning in late 2016, Skapinetz fired off an email calling Coester VMS a “criminal and fraudulent company,” citing an ongoing lawsuit against the company. Skapinetz was on the Coester VMS appraisal roster and sent the email to several appraisers and his contact at Finance of America, who was a client of Coester VMS at the time. Upon hearing of Skapinetz’s email, Brian Coester, the owner of Coester VMS, lifted Skapinetz’s password from the Coester VMS platform and used it to log into Skapinetz’ private Gmail account. The original 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.”

Brian Coester subsequently logged into Skapinetz’ business email account as well, 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 Coester VMS.”

After receiving an alert on his phone that his Gmail account had been accessed, Skapinetz quickly learned that both his email accounts had been hacked from a location in Maryland. Skapinetz reported at the time feeling beside himself, angry, shocked, and confused.

Not long afterwards, 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 America 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. I 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 created a very rough time for me and my family,” says Skapinetz.

The Award
While Skapinetz officially “won” the case in 2019, it has taken over two years to be awarded damages. Part of the delay comes from the fact that Coester VMS shut down its operations and went out of business in early 2019, allegedly leaving many appraisers unpaid.

Skapinetz ultimately prevailed against Coester VMS’s countersuit as well, with the Court finding no logical connection between the loss of Coester’s clients and the original email that Skapinetz sent.

On April 27, 2021, the United States District Court in Maryland issued a Memorandum of Opinion awarding Skapinetz $8,000 in actual damages, $1,000 in pain and suffering, and $92,222.50 in attorneys’ fees, as well as $6,557.61 in costs under the Stored Communications Act (SCA) as to Defendant Brian Coester.

This amount awarded to Skapinetz was ultimately substantially less than what Skapinetz had been pursuing. Specifically, Skapinetz sought $160,000 in compensatory damages, which included $8,000 in lost wages, $2,000 in statutory damages, and $150,000 for pain and suffering. Additionally, Skapinetz sought punitive damages of $200,000 against Coester, $400,000 against Coester VMS; and attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $282,167.61.

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In explaining its lower damages award, the court details that Skapinetz estimated he spent 80 hours during his workdays investigating the email breach, and since his bi-weekly salary translates to roughly $100 per hour, the Court concurred with Skapinetz’s claim of lost income totaling $8,000.

However, the Court found that an award for$150,000 for pain and suffering to be not proportional with the offense. While the Court acknowledged that Skapinetz and his wife testified to the anguish he suffered as a result of the email breach, the Court found that these very real difficulties bore “an outsized relationship to the actual offense.” Consequently, only $1,000 was awarded for pain and suffering.

The Court also denied any punitive damages, writing that Coester’s “actual violations are minor in scope and nature,” and that because Coester “never accessed the email accounts again or otherwise profited from the four emails, the Court cannot conclude that he must be further deterred from committing future SCA violations.”

Lived Experience
Working RE sat down with Mark Skapinetz to get his thoughts on the experience. For starters, Skapinetz says that he is happy that the saga is finally over. “I am 1,000% relieved that I can put this behind me. For over two and a half years this consumed my life. It has been a real roller coaster emotion-wise and there have been a lot of ups and downs,” reports Skapinetz

As noted above, part of this saga included Skapinetz being sued by Coester VMS for $20 million. “I worried a lot about what would happen. I struggled with alcohol during that time and have since gotten sober. Once I got sober, my mind changed, my body changed, and my whole life changed in a positive way. So when the verdict came down, finally, it was like the bench press was taken off my throat. I am happy the outcome resulted in a favorable decision for me,” says Skapinetz.

Although the judge reduced the damages Skapinetz originally sought substantially, Skapinetz says that his primary motivation wasn’t money. “I was trying to prove that what happened to me was wrong. It wasn’t about a big payday or getting money. Whatever damages the judge thought were right, I can’t argue. At the end of the day I am happy about it. The only thing I’m unhappy about is how long it took,” says Skapinetz.

Given the time, money, and trouble involved in Skapinetz’s struggle, he says that he ultimately pursued it because it was the right thing to do. “I caught Coester red-handed hacking my email accounts and I believe an example needed to be made. My story shows that AMCs can abuse their power, use their IT systems and resources, go against their internal policies, and do whatever they want to bully appraisers—even violating the law. Coester got away with pressuring the state of Virginia by threatening lawsuits and pushing many people around. I stood up for myself. I did what I thought was right. While this was occurring, it started to become about protecting appraisers and their rights,” Skapinetz says.

Lessons Learned
In terms of what lessons appraisers can glean from his experience, Skapinetz says that one of the biggest lessons is vetting the people and the companies he does business with. After all, Brian Coester could access the email and password that Skapinetz used to log in to the Coester VMS platform, then use that same information on Skapinetz’s email accounts. Consequently, Skapinetz says he is much more careful about who he chooses to work for.

“My advice to appraisers is to do your due diligence on who you’re dealing with. Before you sign up for a company, take the time to research them and research the platform they are using. Research everything you can; call them up, speak to the owner or Chief Appraiser, ask other appraisers, and look for everything you can on Google and Facebook—get a good feel of if this is a company you want to work for. Don’t just sign up with every AMC or client that offers you work,” reports Skapinetz.

Lastly, he learned a lesson about the American legal system. “Hiring attorneys is expensive. I’d advise anyone to think twice before suing somebody. I learned a lot about the law and the American judicial system in the process. My experience was not a good one and I believe the entire system needs to be revamped. It is too easy for expensive attorneys to kick the can down the road and it is very difficult to hold powerful people responsible for their actions,” Skapinetz argues.

It’s much easier to vet your clients and business partners than to wind up in a lawsuit down the road, notes Skapinetz. Stay safe out there!

About the Author
Isaac Peck is the Editor of Working RE magazine and the President of OREP, a leading provider of E&O insurance for real estate professionals. OREP serves over 10,000 appraisers with comprehensive E&O coverage, competitive rates, and 14 hours of free CE for OREP Members (CE not approved in IL, MN, GA). Visit https://OREP.org to learn more. Reach Isaac at isaac@orep.org or (888) 347-5273. CA License #4116465.

 

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