Christian Coomer in February 2018, when he was Majority Whip in the state House of Representatives. Later that year he was appointed as a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals. (BOB ANDRES / AJC 2018 file)
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

State Appeals Court judge accused of fraud, malpractice

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer is being accused of fraud and legal malpractice in a lawsuit filed by a former client who made $289,000 in loans to a holding company controlled by Coomer in 2018.

One of the loans, for $159,000, was to be paid off at the end of 30 years, when Coomer’s client would be 106 years old, the lawsuit said. A promissory note, filled out by Coomer for the loan, listed his client’s property — not Coomer’s property — as security should the holding company fail to pay off the debt, the lawsuit said.

Coomer also prepared a will for his former client that could give Coomer access to nearly all of his client’s estate, a blatant violation of the rules of professional conduct governing attorneys, the suit said.

Coomer strongly denied allegations he tried to defraud his former client.

“The lawsuit is pretty outrageous,” Coomer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I completely and utterly deny the allegations of fraud. I can’t deny it strongly enough, because it’s absolutely untrue.”

The suit was filed March 6 by Jim Filhart of Cartersville in Bartow County Superior Court. His attorney, Wright Gammon, declined to comment.

The lawsuit has already attracted the attention of the state agency investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

“I can confirm we have been made aware of the situation and have an investigation pending,” said Chuck Boring, director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The alleged misconduct occurred over a six-month period ending in September 2018. This was while Coomer ran a law practice in Cartersville and also served as Majority Whip in the state House of Representatives.Coomer was appointed to the state Court of Appeals bench in October 2018 by then-Gov. Nathan Deal.

Filhart hired Coomer to help with a guardianship issue involving Filhart’s girlfriend, who lived in a nursing home, the suit said.

Filhart paid Coomer an initial $20,000 retainer fee, and Coomer later collected an additional $60,000 in fees, the suit said. Although Filhart asked Coomer to provide an accounting for these fees, Coomer never provided one, the suit said.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Coomer said that in his 21 years practicing law, no one has ever before made such accusations against him. As for his legal work for Filhart, “the value of the time I spent exceeds what he paid in legal fees,” Coomer said.

After the guardianship action concluded, Coomer began asking Filhart, who was 76 at the time, to loan him money, the suit said. The first occurred March 8, 2018, with the $159,000 loan, the suit said.

The loan was made to Coomer’s CAC Holdings LLC. It had a 3.3 percent annual interest rate and called for $695.35 monthly payments until April 2048, the loan’s promissory note said. According to Coomer’s campaign disclosures, CAC Holdings is involved in real estate management.

CAC Holdings borrowed another $130,000 from Filhart on Sept. 8, 2018. The promissory note for this loan called for it to be paid back in full on Jan. 1, 2026, when Filhart would be 84. This loan was unsecured, the lawsuit said.

Under Georgia bar rules, a lawyer is prohibited from having certain business transactions with a client unless specific steps are taken. This includes notifying a client that he or she should consult other counsel before entering into such transactions.

In his statement, Coomer said he fulfilled those obligations. Two memos, both signed by Coomer and Filhart and attached to the promissory notes, reflect those notifications. The lawsuit did not say whether Filhart sought out advice from another lawyer on both occasions.

In May 2018, Coomer persuaded Filhart to place Coomer as the beneficiary of Filhart’s financial investment accounts, the suit said. Coomer also began preparing Filhart a new will after convincing him his existing will was not good, the suit said.

In the first will Coomer drew up, he named himself the executor and appointed himself the primary beneficiary of Filhart’s estate, the suit said.

In September 2018, Coomer told Filhart his will needed to be revised yet again, the suit said. In this one, Coomer’s wife, Heidi Coomer, was appointed the executor of Filhart’s estate, and the will named the USO, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, the Patriot Riders and Christian Coomer as beneficiaries of Filhart’s trust, the suit said.

Nevertheless, as executor, Heidi Coomer had the discretion to give “all or nearly all of the entire estate” to her husband, the suit said.

Gammon, Filhart’s lawyer, attached the promissory notes and wills to the lawsuit against Coomer.

In his statement, Christian Coomer said the transactions sprang from his friendship with Filhart.

“He spent many hours visiting my staff in our office and my family in our home, and we became close,” Coomer said. “In the course of our relationship and friendship, he indicated he had money tied up that was not earning much return and offered to loan me money as he had done for others. I took him up on the offer.”

Coomer said he has honored the terms of the loans and made all payments when due. As for the will, Filhart “was of sound mind, as witnessed by two of his friends who were present at the signing of these estate documents and a notary public who knew him,” Coomer said.

Coomer added that he believes Filhart has since changed provisions of his will.

In a sworn affidavit attached to the lawsuit, Donald Lundberg, a legal ethics expert from Indiana, said he had reviewed emails exchanged between Coomer and Filhart when Filhart requested an accounting. In one email, Coomer suggested that Filhart was incompetent or laboring under some mental infirmity, Lundberg said.

“Taking Mr. Coomer’s emails at face value, he breached the standard of care of an attorney by procuring loans and preparing testamentary documents designating himself beneficiary for a person whom he suspected was operating with a diminished capacity,” Lundberg said.

Coomer’s actions, Lundberg concluded, “exhibited dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation and accordingly violated the standard of care.”

In his statement, Coomer said that he believed Filhart knew what he was doing when all the transactions were executed.

“To my knowledge, he was of sound mind at least until 2019, when he first suggested to me that he was somehow impaired,” he said. “I am disappointed that he has filed this action, but intend to defend myself vigorously against these allegations.”

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