A candidate running for the Ontario Liberals was once reprimanded for professional misconduct after her law firm staff were found to have engaged in “misleading, harassing, and threatening” conduct to collect debts, Global News has learned.
Deanna Sgro, a practicing lawyer, was disciplined by the Law Society of Ontario in 2013 when she went by the name Deanna Lynn Natale. She is now running for the provincial Liberals in a Toronto-area riding as Deanna Sgro.
Following 155 complaints over four years, a law society tribunal found she had “engaged in professional misconduct” for failing to properly supervise her debt collection staff to the “standards of a professional law office.”
On Monday, the Ontario Liberal Party said Sgro would not be commenting on the matter but had been “completely open and transparent on this topic” and the party was pleased to have her as a candidate.
“The Liberal party is aware that in 2013 staff who were working under Deanna Sgro were disciplined by the law society,” Patricia Favre, a party spokesperson, said in a statement sent to Global News in response to questions.
But documents provided by the law society show it was Sgro herself who was disciplined over the tactics used by her law office staff, some of whom were “rude, misleading, harassing and threatening,” and phoned “over and over again” on behalf of a collection agency.
Among the cases cited by the law society was that of an 83-year-old man who was hearing impaired and had a heart condition. He received repeated calls from Sgro’s law office claiming he owed credit card debt for purchases made a decade earlier. According to the law society documents, the man said he was told by Sgro’s office that unless he paid up “my house would no longer be mine.”
Upset, he took a subway and two buses to the Richmond Hill small claims court, where the staff told him a draft statement of claim Sgro’s office had sent him was not a legal document. Sgro’s firm later sent him another letter acknowledging “he had been contacted in error.”
A woman who received a letter from Sgro’s office warning she might be sued over a $222 Roger’s bill checked her records and found she had already paid it off. When she called Sgro’s office to let them know a staff member nonetheless threatened to “take all my assets and seize my bank account,” she said, according to the law society.
“The abusive collections practice caused significant harm to the complainants,” the law society wrote. “This was not a matter of minor or passing annoyance, but persistent intimidation, harassment, and repeated threats that provoked fear, anxiety, and serious consternation among the individuals pursued, many of whom actually owed no money to Ms. Natale’s clients.”
Sgro graduated from Osgoode Hall law school in 1992 and went on to work for some of Canada’s largest collection agencies. She spent eight years as in-house lawyer for Total Credit Recovery and in 2007 began working on contract for Global Credit and Collection Inc.
Between February 2007 and February 2011, her firm processed over 200,000 files concerning relatively small debts, while employing as many as 40 non-lawyer assistants to pursue these individuals, the law society wrote.
“She was able to do this by making use of new technology to create computer-generated demand letters and draft statements of claim that were mailed to alleged debtors,” the law society said. “The alleged debtors were then pursued by telephone by the lawyer’s staff.”
The letters, signed electronically by “Deanna L. Natale,” said legal action could be launched unless the recipient paid up in 10 business days and warned “your property may be seized and sold … Govern yourself accordingly.”
After sending the letters, staff would follow up with phone calls, sometimes to workplaces. Complaints against the law firm came from individuals as well as provincial regulators in Ontario, Alberta and Prince Edward Island.
The law society panel felt the “circumstances proven here compel the imposition of a penalty. The sheer volume of substantiated complaints, combined with the duration of the misconduct over four years, necessitates a disciplinary response. This requires a professional regulator to take steps to discipline its licensee in a public forum. A sanction is required in the public interest.”
Noting that she had “demonstrated sincere efforts to make changes to her practice upon receipt of the complaints,” cooperated with the investigation and had a “previous unblemished disciplinary record,” the law society did not suspend Sgro. Instead, she was reprimanded.
“After reviewing all of the evidence, and considering submissions from counsel, the panel is of the view that a reprimand is the most appropriate penalty for the professional misconduct of Ms. Natale,” read the decision.
Mark Silverthorn, a debt relief industry expert who closely followed the case, pointed to the law society’s findings and said: “What people should be asking themselves is do they want someone like that representing them?”
But Favre said Sgro had taken “responsibility for the actions of her staff and worked with the law society to address it … Outside of this incident Deanna has had an exemplary record with the Law Society.”
Sgro is running in the new riding of Humber River-Black Creek. On the weekend, Premier Kathleen Wynne posted on Twitter that if Sgro won in the upcoming provincial election, she and her mother, Judy Sgro, who is the Liberal MP in the same riding, would become the “first mother-daughter duo in Canadian politics!”