Legally Speaking: The High Price of Not Keeping a Low Profile

By John G. Browning | Apr 22, 2010

It never ceases to amaze me what people think they can get away with in a reality-show-obsessed, 15-minutes-of-fame society.

Richard Hatch, winner of the original "Survivor," pockets $1 million but evidently didn't think the IRS was watching TV. The result was a stint in a federal prison for income tax evasion.

Ronald Hunt, an interior designer in California, had been on disability payments claiming he was unable to work. He'd already collected approximately $147,000 in payments when an employee of the insurance company that was writing those checks just happened to see Hunt on television, working on a home improvement show.

As it turns out, Hunt had been working the whole time, earning around $400,000 while supposedly being incapable of working. Hunt's next job will probably be in the prison laundry, after pleading guilty in November 2009 to two counts of fraud.

In March, San Diego federal judge Irma Gonzales sentenced Matthew Eaton to 27 months in prison and his wife Nora to a one-year-and-one-day sentence.

Their crime? Conspiracy to transport stolen property. According to prosecutors, the couple had engaged in a two-year scheme of shoplifting toys and then reselling them online, selling more than $100,000 worth of stolen goods between August 2006 and March 2009.

A search of the couple's home in March 2009 revealed over 500 boxes of unopened toys awaiting shipment – everything from Legos to Thomas the Tank Engine train sets to Hot Wheels cars.

How did federal law enforcement authorities bust the Eatons? Simple – they watched television.

In a show broadcast in November 2008, the couple went on the "Dr. Phil" show, supposedly to get help for their chronic shoplifting "problem." Once on the program, however, the Eatons bragged about their exploits and didn't really seem all that troubled at all.

Calling Matthew Eaton's conduct "despicable," Judge Gonzales actually sentenced him to a longer sentence than prosecutors had recommended.

But the judge also had a few choice words for Dr. Phil McGraw as well. Noting that the only "help" the Eatons got were free copies of McGraw's books, Judge Gonzales called Dr. Phil "a charlatan" and "a terrible, terrible man," and told Mr. Eaton that "he obviously didn't help you."

James Dorman of Liverpool, England, may not have gone on TV, but he didn't exactly keep a low profile. After injuring his knee in the late 1980s and getting a doctor to certify that he was virtually unable to walk (the actual report said he was "only able to walk a crab"), Dorman began collecting disability benefits.

Not only did he receive tens of thousands of dollars in disability payments, he also received specially adapted Volkswagen and Renault cars.

While his original injury appears to have been legitimate, it greatly improved within a couple of years; however, for the next 16 years, Dorman decided to keep quiet and continue pocketing the benefits. After all, he had a good thing going.

All good things must come to an end, though. At some point, the government was tipped off.

Maybe it was the fact that Dorman was an avid golfer, and he proudly displayed the trophies from tournament wins like the annual corporate competition held by his employer.

In any event, after his arrest for fraud, Dorman showed up to court on crutches and claimed that his condition was still "very similar" to what he had originally suffered in the late 1980s. At that point, prosecutors played video footage of Dorman engaging in such activities as climbing a ladder, pushing his car when it had broken down, and even dancing a jig to entertain children.

Dorman quickly changed his plea to guilty of fraud and obtaining revenues by deception. The judge sentenced him to a 26-week prison term and ordered him to pay back the money he'd received, calling Dorman's actions "serious offenses against society which bring the disability system into disrepute."

That's what you get for not staying "in character," as actors would say.

Sometimes, it's what winds up in the papers that comes back to haunt someone. Shirley Nelson of Batavia, Wis., filed a lawsuit nearly two years after her husband slipped and fell on an "unnatural accumulation of ice" outside of a Trader Joe's.

But this was no ordinary premises liability suit, according to her attorney Patrick Flaherty: the lawsuit alleged that 77-year-old Arthur Nelson's death 21 months after the slip and fall was "a direct and proximate result of the negligence of the defendants and the ensuing fall."

Unfortunately for the credibility of that allegation, Mr. Nelson's obituary after his Nov. 6, 2009, death described his "courageous battle with cancer."

I've defended a lot of slip and fall cases in my career, and I've yet to see a fall that caused cancer.

Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo had a tough break on March 21, 2008, when he fell and sustained a back injury so severe that just a few weeks later, his doctor recommended that Arroyo be granted a disability retirement because he was "totally and permanently disabled." By May 3, he'd been out of work for six weeks, collecting his full annual salary of $68,133 tax free.

Evidently, however, his "total disability" didn't keep him from his rigorous weightlifting and workout regimen for the 2008 Pro Natural American Bodybuilding Championships, where he finished eighth.

Arroyo has been a competitive bodybuilder for years, and in 2007 finished second in the International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation World Championships.

When questioned, the doctor who'd assessed Arroyo as "totally and permanently disabled" claimed not to have known his patient was a champion bodybuilder (I'm not sure how he missed the telltale muscles).

Boston fire commissioner Roderick Fraser put it fairly bluntly when word came of Arroyo's injury claim. Urging the retirement board to reject the claim, Fraser said "If he can lift weights, work out constantly, and enter bodybuilding contests, then he can inspect a building."

When it comes to keeping a low profile, Nathalie Blanchard will probably re-think what she puts on her Facebook page in the future.

The 29-year-old Canadian woman was on long term (almost two years) sick leave for depression, receiving monthly benefits from the insurance carrier (Manulife) for her employer (IBM).

But then the insurance company got wind of photos on her Facebook page in which she didn't exactly look like the poster child for depression. On Facebook, she was seen at parties, frolicking on the beach, and having a very good time surrounded by male strippers at a Chippendale show. Citing the photos as evidence that Blanchard was no longer depressed, Manulife terminated her benefits.

Blanchard has now retained a lawyer, and plans to sue IBM as well as the insurance company.

In the meantime, she's learned a tough lesson: when you don't keep a low profile, you may wind up paying a high price.

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