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Neglected malpractice lawsuit spirals into $742K judgment against Roanoke attorney

Neglected malpractice lawsuit spirals into $742K judgment against Roanoke attorney

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A Roanoke lawyer’s handling of two legal cases — one on behalf of a client, the other involving her subsequent lawsuit against him — has left him on the hook for monetary damages that stretch into the high six figures.

Following a judge’s civil award last year, attorney Charles John “C.J.” Covati currently owes just less than $742,300 to former client Stacy Bush Phillips, according to documents filed in Roanoke Circuit Court.

Covati represented Phillips in her divorce in 2016 and negotiated monthly spousal support on her behalf. But in 2019 she sued him for malpractice, arguing that he had mismanaged her case. Her suit, which sought $1 million in damages, claimed he rushed the proceedings, had not fully consulted with her on several details, and failed to pursue assets that might have been available to her, including her ex-husband’s retirement benefits.

But the centerpiece of Phillips’ suit was her claim that Covati assured her that, through the separation agreement he drafted, she would receive a specific amount each month for life, regardless of her future marital status. When she remarried in 2018, however, her former spouse successfully terminated support payments. Phillips also argued — and a judge later agreed — that Covati used fraudulent methods in trying to fix his procedural error.

A further legal issue arose last year when Phillips’ suit made its way into court, minus the presence of Covati.

Filings show that after his preliminary answer to Phillips’ suit, Covati, acting as his own attorney, did not respond to further plaintiff requests and could not be reached by the court. Because of Covati’s lengthy background in Roanoke courts, where he has practiced law for years and once served as a substitute judge, the suit’s proceedings were held in Montgomery County Circuit Court and were heard by Judge Robert Turk.

But last summer, as Phillips’ attorneys presented evidence against him on July 8 and Turk later issued his rulings, Covati remained consistently and inexplicably absent.

Late in the game, just prior to a hearing in September, Covati drafted a request for a continuance, citing the aftereffects of an Aug. 7 stroke, which he claimed had caused him to be hospitalized. But that motion was faxed only to the plaintiff’s attorney and was not filed with the court, so the Sept. 11 hearing went forward as scheduled.

Because the suit was filed in Roanoke but heard in Montgomery County, the various dates in the case did not appear on the public calendars for either of those circuit courts.

Covati, 54, did not respond to interview requests left on his cellphone Friday, and there was no answer or voicemail option at his business office.

Phillips’ complaint, drafted by Roanoke attorney Pat Ferrance, claimed that when she first met with Covati in 2016 regarding her divorce, he allegedly advised her, “It’s probably best to get this over with quick.”

The complaint said he briskly set up an arrangement that, as Phillips understood it, waived any claims to her spouse’s retirement accounts in exchange for monthly support — roughly equal to the amount of her mortgage payment — that would not terminate until either she or her ex-husband died, even if she remarried.

In 2018, after she became engaged again, Phillips checked with Covati on the support agreement and was reportedly told “you don’t have a thing to worry about,” her complaint said.

That turned out to be untrue and, once she wed, her ex-husband’s support payments soon stopped. When the issue was litigated in Bedford County Circuit Court, a judge found that the agreement’s language “was inadequate as a matter of law to preserve Plaintiff’s right to spousal support upon remarriage,” according to Phillips’ complaint.

In trying to resolve that problem by filing an amended document, the complaint maintained, Covati had made misleading claims.

The Montgomery County judge’s ruling affirmed those faults last year.

“There are no material questions of fact regarding [Covati’s] liability to plaintiff for acts of malpractice,” Turk wrote in his July 8 order, and the judge further found “that [Covati’s] actions in this case were fraudulent, and meant to gain unfair advantage at trial, including knowingly and intentionally making material false statements of fact to the Court.”

In determining Phillips’ damages last October, Turk averaged the life expectancies of Phillips and her ex-husband. Based on the amount she would have received each month under the intended agreement, he calculated that she was owed $642,513. He also added roughly $1,100 for the fees she paid Covati.

Together with $98,181.84 in interest and $502.50 in additional costs, Covati’s current debt totals $742,297.34.

From either side, that’s a considerable figure — a staggering blow to a defendant, and towering compensation to a plaintiff — but at least for now it appears that money will remain abstract.

Garnishment procedures began earlier this year and, according to Ferrance, Covati did appear at two of three scheduled court hearings to disclose information about his finances, which were reportedly insufficient to even begin to cover his debt.

“It’s what we lawyers looking to get money call ‘a dry hole,’” Ferrance said Thursday, adding that no payments have yet been collected. “He’s got no savings or assets, at least what I can figure out.”

A garnishee’s answer filed last week in Roanoke Circuit Court showed that a bank account in Covati’s name contained $100.

Covati previously owned part of a Roanoke business, the Gold and Silver Gentleman’s Club on Franklin Road, but in an interview last year, he said he had sold his interest in it.

Covati was convicted in 2019 of assaulting an exotic dancer who worked at Gold and Silver, while on the premises. But in February 2020, he appealed his case and, at a jury trial, was acquitted. Several months later, the woman sued him in Roanoke federal court, alleging assault and battery, sexual discrimination and harassment and retaliation. That case was quietly settled between the two parties on Nov. 30 under terms that remain undisclosed.

According to the Virginia State Bar’s online docket, Covati is slated to appear May 21 for disciplinary hearings on three counts of misconduct. It remains unclear what those counts are in reference to, or whether he is being represented in those matters by another attorney.

Contact Neil Harvey at neil.harvey@roanoke.com or 981-3376. On Twitter @newsharvey.

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