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A threat that litigation will be initiated, or will be continued, to resolve a dispute, unless money is paid in settlement of the dispute, cannot be a wrongful means to obtain or attempt to obtain money, at least when a claim actually exists. The same reasoning applies even when the threat of litigation is made in bad faith, with knowledge that there is no genuine claim. The extortionist uses intimidation to leverage gain. Intimidation can be achieved only when the victim reasonably believes, or, if the threat actually would have been communicated to him, reasonably would have believed, that the extortionist has the power to inflict harm such as: bodily injury, property damage, emotional injury, or economic injury. In other words, the nature of the threat must be such as to make the victim susceptible of being placed in fear of harm.
Defendant Scott Lewis Rendelman mailed a letter to his former employer, William Elmhirst, from whom defendant had embezzled money, threatening to sue Elmhirst for damages if he did not pay a $100,000 "settlement demand." Defendant's threat was made in bad faith, with actual knowledge that he had no factual or legal ground for it. A jury convicted him of one count of extortion by economic threat pursuant to Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-701(b) (Supp. 2006), and one count of extortion in writing by economic threat, Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-706. The Montgomery County Circuit Court (Maryland) entered final judgments of conviction against the defendant. On appeal, defendant challenged the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions.
Under the circumstances, should the defendant be held liable for extortion by economic threat and extortion in writing by economic threat?
The intermediate appellate court found that the evidence was insufficient to support either conviction. As to the conviction for extortion by economic threat, it found that defendant's threat to file suit unless a settlement was paid, even one made in bad faith, was not a "wrongful" threat under Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-701(b) since pursuit of a civil lawsuit was lawful. It also found that, as to Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-706, litigation was not a wrongful mean and, thus, defendant could not be shown to have intended to a wrongful purpose by a wrongful mean.