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Gary Fong: My Account of the Ridiculous $300,000 Lawsuit Threat Against Nelson Tang

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On July 14, 2012, I received a desperate email from a photographer whom I had only met once briefly at a public appearance. He was terribly distraught, and nobody would help him. In his letter, he said that I was his last resort.

His name is Nelson Tang, and he is a very gentle soul, kind and soft-spoken, a new immigrant from Hong Kong with only a rough command of the English language. At the time, he and his wife were adjusting to life with an 18 month old son, she was a server in a restaurant and he worked for a non-profit. Financially, they were living paycheck to paycheck.

So you can imagine his trembling hands reading the letter that went viral, and became a worldwide symbol for anger against attorney bullying. In the letter, the groom/attorney explained that they were unhappy with the images, and demanded a refund of his $3,800 – plus an additional $15,000! If he didn’t pay this right away (which would have been impossible for Nelson to do, financially) the groom assured him that a jury would award him $300,000.

Being new to the U.S., Nelson did not know much about the legal system. But he did know that the groom was an attorney, so he was convinced that the threats in the letter would be carried out. In the letter, the attorney/groom said that Nelson’s “reputation will be ruined,… livelihood destroyed… and your life will be miserable…” He also said, “this lawsuit will be a public record. EVERYONE will see it… I will invite anyone else who has been unsatisfied with your work to join this lawsuit, and I will represent them as well…”

letter

Nelson had traveled to Las Vegas to photograph their wedding. He had been a friend of the bride for over ten years. When it came time to the formality of writing up a contract, the groom (a lawyer) kept making changes after changes, with more and more verbose demonstrations of his command of legalese with every revision.

Finally, his contract had become so one-sided and confusing that Nelson wouldn’t sign it. For the event, he charged a mere $3,800 not including airfare or hotel. As he and the bride were friends, he just went with a verbal, but not written contract. There wasn’t enough time to argue forever over it.

After I read the letter, my first thought was, I need to see these images. So he uploaded them to a site and let me view them. They were excellent. As a professional photographer with over 1,000 weddings under my belt in my 20 year career (plus my experience as the founder and operator of a very large professional color lab), I have extensive experience in wedding photography. Of all of the wedding photography I have seen, his were in the 90th percentile. They were very, very good.

They showed composition, technical precision, timing and variety with his spontaneous moments. There were many, many good images. Any bride would be thrilled with these images. I shared the images with many of my peers in photography, who are among the best photographers in the world. The opinion was unanimous – there was nothing wrong with the images.

I got Robert Evans to agree to testify as an expert witness (along with myself). Robert has photographed Tom Cruise’s and Brad Pitt’s weddings (among many other celebrities) and is highly regarded as one of the best wedding photographers in the world.

At this point, I deepened my involvement. It angered me that this hot-headed jerk of an attorney would pick on someone as meek and helpless as Nelson. Plus, I was terrified of the precedent this would set for my fellow wedding photographers in the future. If brides and grooms could sue their photographers for hundreds of thousands of dollars and succeed, wedding photographers would always live in fear of having their lives destroyed simply because they photographed a wedding, and the client did not like them. Shoot a wedding, lose your house.

I read the letter aloud on a YouTube webcam video:

Within days, there were over 100,000 views. It had gone viral. I was contacted by the London Daily Mail and the Seattle Enquirer with media requests. Photographers and attorneys worldwide expressed their outrage.

Nelson contacted me because he had followed my career and was familiar with my many legal entanglements. He therefore knew that I was always embroiled in litigation (20 years of continuous lawsuits with no break. At one point I had fourteen attorneys representing me). He had read about my success in a Federal Jury Trial against an ex-employee wedding photographer in the Fong vs. Halton case. He also knew that it was my nature to lend a helping hand to people who really needed it.

When he wrote me, he said that I was his last resort. That he really, really, really needed help. I dropped everything I was doing and contacted my friends who were attorneys. Several of them became involved in helping us come up with a strategy to fight off this idiot. Working with my attorney friends, we had Nelson respond as a “pro-se” defendant (representing himself) and we banded together to file his responses, and to file our own discovery requests.

Planning ahead, we knew he would need an attorney if this thing went to trial. So I started an online fundraising website (helpnelsontang.com – which is still up) to help Nelson pay his legal bills, and we raised $4,390.

The plaintiff kept the pressure filing motions and demands which were obvious attempts to spend Nelson into bankruptcy with legal fees. But their work was useless and sloppy. They even sent over a brief that was obviously copied and pasted from a Bank Of America complaint, because they forgot to substitute Nelson’s name for Bank Of America in the text!

In a litigation, you must exchange evidence with your opposing counsel. You may also demand documentation that you believe will be helpful to your case. Since the groom threatened to make huge enlargements to show the jury how bad Nelson’s work was, we demanded (and rightly so) for them to make huge enlargements of every single image that Nelson had supplied to them, in order to level the playing field. We should be able to rebut their exhibits with exhibits of our own, in the same size of prints.

In short, we demanded that they make thousands of 24×30 prints and to produce them at trial. I remember calculating that our demand for production for this exhibit alone would have cost the plaintiff about $80,000 to produce. But the law is that way. If you serve a demand for production of documents, you have to furnish them.

Finally, under the pressure of our solid defense and our easy ability to illustrate to the court how ridiculous their claim was, (in one of our exhibits, Nelson was able to show that the couple shared over 1,000 images on their Facebook page, followed by compliments on the photographers from their family and friends!)

We retained a wonderful, passionate attorney, and we were preparing for the mandatory mediation session. Shortly before mediation, we got word that the plaintiff dropped the lawsuit.

This would not have been the result if Nelson were defenseless. The US legal system allows for this type of predatory behavior to burden an innocent person with enormous legal fees, with impunity. The attorney spent nothing out of pocket, as he represented himself.

When the case was dropped, Nelson’s could not get recourse for his loss in legal fees. Thank goodness for the kindness of the donors!

I found this idiot’s conduct reprehensible, and thus filed a complaint with the Washington State Bar Association. In Washington, a non-involved party witnessing attorney misconduct may file bar complaints.

I filed a bar complaint, and the Washington State Bar leapt quickly to our aid. They served the idiot with notice that he was under investigation, and demanded that the lawyer produce every note, memo, complaint for this case, and to justify his position that what he had done did not constitute 2nd degree extortion, a criminal offense in Washington.

The attorney then retained a law firm to represent himself in front of the bar. Now I was becoming satisfied. This jerk now had to spend real dollars of his own to keep from getting dis-barred. I knew the tables were turned, as I was copied on every correspondence served on him from the Washington State Bar. I’m sure this jerk spent many sleepless nights wondering if his career was over. I’m sure he hated the letter that he had sent to Mr. Tang, as it was now in the possession of the bar association as evidence of misconduct.

It was rewarding. Mr. Tang was very relieved and grateful that the legal and photographic communities rallied support behind him and fought off this threat. And because of my bar complaint, the lawyer had to face with an investigation from the State Bar Association for misconduct.

The bar put the attorney on a ‘diversion contract’. The case counsellor explained to me that he had to go through a rehabilitation program (which included professional counseling by a psychiatrist) or have his license suspended. The last I heard, the attorney had satisfied the terms of his diversion contract, and there was no further bar discipline.

But I’m sure a lesson was learned. Seattle has a very tight-knit asian community, and word gets around fast in a culture that values honor above all other virtues. And with the letter made public, the bar investigation and the cries of public outrage against this a**hole will leave a deep impact on his career. If he ever had political ambitions (he was President of the Vietnamese Bar Association in Seattle, plus, he worked for my 2nd cousin, former Governor and Secretary Of Commerce Gary Locke) he will never survive the media coverage of his misconduct.

And just to make sure that the letter had impact with as many people of influence as possible, I sent a copy of the letter to Governor Locke. I feel satisfied at this point that this scumbag deeply feels regret over the letter he wrote.

If you would like to see comments from the outraged community, along with the donations contributed from people worldwide, visit “helpnelsontang.com”. You’ll find the comments to be very stirring.

Followers on the Internet did a fantastic job of rallying behind this cause of injustice. I loved watching the amount of support we got as so many people got behind the Poon/Tang case.

Which brings me to the name. To quote attorney Rob Shenk (who wrote an op-ed article about this case in PetaPixel recently) Poon/Tang was the “greatest case name in the history of the world”. I believe that this inauspicious name is the perfect symbol for this case.

It’s so ridiculous that if it wasn’t real, you’d think the whole thing was completely made up.


About the author: Gary Fong has been described by “Guitar Aficionado” magazine as “one of the most recognizable names in photography”. A longtime professional photographer who retired after a twenty year career, he also created the photo lab at Pictage, which grew to over 150 employees and eventually sold for $35 million dollars. He is the inventor behind the industry-leading flash modifier products which bear his name and contributes to a popular YouTube instructional channel on photographic techniques.

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