The manager, Patrick Borden, claimed that the cashier, Leticia Walsh, was improperly waiving shipping and handling fees for items Pianelli had bought from the store catalog and giving her the store sales price when it was lower than those listed in the catalog. Borden started investigating Pianelli after he noticed that more than 50 credits had been made to her J.C. Penney account within a single month. As a result, Pianelli was able to acquire household items and dolls for her daughters at up to 90 percent off the original price. Through conscientious coupon clipping, Pianelli was legitimately buying $60 Barbie dolls for $6.99, said one of her civil attorneys, Mark D. Feinstein, a partner at Feinstein & Sorota in North Miami Beach. Feinstein's co-counsel was Matthew E. Haynes, a partner with Chamblee Johnson & Haynes in West Palm Beach.
Pianelli, whose husband is a traffic officer with the Broward sheriff's office, claimed she had done nothing wrong. An admitted compulsive shopper who inherited her mother's frugality, Pianelli claimed that all her discounts were legal.
For example, Pianelli knew that J.C. Penney had a policy that by buying a store catalog for $5, she could receive $10 off her purchase using a code on the back of the catalog. If she wanted to buy $300 in merchandise, Pianelli would buy 15 catalogs. Then she'd split her $300 order into 15 separate orders so she could get the $10 discount on each one. That way, she saved $150 (minus the $5 she paid for each catalog) using coupons in 15 different orders rather than $10 on just one.
"You could learn a lot from this lady," Feinstein said. "She's very proud of how much she saves."
J.C. Penney's trial counsel, Rhea Grossman of Fort Lauderdale, declined to discuss the case or the prospects for an appeal. A public relations officer at J.C. Penney headquarters in Plano, Texas, said he was unfamiliar with the case and declined comment.
In January 2001, a criminal jury in state court in Broward County acquitted Pianelli and Walsh, the store cashier, of grand theft and conspiracy to commit theft. The two women could have faced prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted.
By the time of the criminal trial, the emotional strain on Pianelli had begun to take its toll, Feinstein said. It was about this time she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She lost 50 pounds and developed alopecia -- hair loss induced by stress.
Following her acquittal, Pianelli filed suit against J.C. Penney and Borden in Broward Circuit Court, alleging malicious prosecution and negligent supervision. The case was tried March 15-19 before Circuit Judge Richard Eade.
At trial, Feinstein claimed that Borden's investigation was woefully inadequate. The only person he interviewed about his suspicions was Walsh, who promptly quit and refused to answer most of his questions. The only surveillance he did produce was a three-hour videotape that showed nothing more than Pianelli presenting coupons to the cashier, Feinstein said.
Borden never questioned Pianelli or any of the other cashiers who had signed off on Pianelli's receipts before calling the Coral Springs police, who turned the case over to the Broward state attorney's office without conducting further investigation, Feinstein said.
Borden, the only state witness at the criminal trial, didn't tell police that Pianelli had received authorization of similar discounts by nine other cashiers during the time she was accused of fraud, Feinstein said.
He also failed to investigate the fact that J.C. Penney had written policies authorizing its cashiers to give customers the lower price if the store sales price was less than the one listed in the catalog. There's no prohibition against customers buying more than one catalog for the $10 coupons, Feinstein said. Every time one of the cashiers waived the shipping and handling costs, there was a store promotion to back it up, he added. "Still, J.C. Penney refused to acknowledge that their investigation was bad," Feinstein said. But the jury deliberated for just 30 minutes before awarding Pianelli $525,045. The judgment includes money for mental anguish, past and future medical expenses for psychological counseling and the legal expenses she accrued hiring a private attorney to defend her in the criminal trial.
Typical runaway jury award, should be overturned or greatly reduced on appeal. I would have been suspicious, too. And it sounds like the desicion to prosecute was the D.A.'s. If the case had no merit, the D.A. would have declined to prosecute.