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Roanoke lawyer faces $742K judgment for botched divorce

A Roanoke lawyer is defending collection actions on a six-figure judgment after alleged lapses in a divorce action and a resulting legal malpractice lawsuit, according to his client’s new lawyer and Virginia State Bar allegations.

Charles “C.J.” Covati undermined his client’s entitlement to lifetime alimony and missed opportunities to fix his mistake and defend a professional negligence action, according to information from the VSB and the lawyer for Covati’s former client.

Now, the client is looking for ways to collect on her judgment and the VSB is preparing for a May 21 hearing before the VSB Disciplinary Board.

Lifetime alimony sought

Covati’s client, Stacy Phillips, agreed to accept lifetime spousal support in lieu of any claims to her husband’s retirement accounts, according to the VSB charges. She hired Covati in 2016 to represent her in her divorce.

Even though the parties agreed Stacy would continue to receive alimony even if she remarried, the separation agreement written by Covati did not specifically state that provision, the bar said. Later, a divorce decree prepared by Covati stated that neither party would be responsible for spousal support.

The decree was entered Aug. 30, 2016, in Bedford County Circuit Court and the husband began making support payments pursuant to the separation agreement, the bar said.

In 2018, Phillips told Covati she was planning to remarry and wanted to be sure her support would continue, the bar said. Covati reportedly assured her that her new marriage would not extinguish her first husband’s support obligation.

But shortly after Phillips remarried, the first husband stopped paying support and told Phillips he no longer had any obligation to do so, the bar said. Covati acknowledged the divorce decree contained an error, but he said he would fix the problem.

The fix goes wrong

Covati twice had amended divorce decrees entered in the circuit court, but neither of the amended decrees was adequate to protect Phillips’ right to lifetime support payments as contemplated by the separation agreement, according to the bar charges.

Moreover, the amended decrees both incorrectly declared that there was no arrearage for unpaid support, the bar said.

Despite the language in the circuit court documents declaring there was no arrearage, Covati arranged for Phillips to try to collect the arrearage in juvenile and domestic relations court, the bar charged. The husband was found in contempt for failure to pay, but the contempt finding was dismissed in circuit court.

Malpractice action

Phillips, represented by Leon “Pat” Ferrance of Roanoke, sued Covati for malpractice in Roanoke Circuit Court. The case was heard by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert M.D. Turk.

Covati filed an answer to the complaint but then failed to participate in the case. Turk heard evidence and imposed a judgment of $742,297.34. In his order, Turk went beyond a finding of malpractice and concluded Covati had committed fraud, Ferrance said.

The court’s order of July 8 found that Covati “knowingly and intentionally made materially false statements of fact to the court concerning arrearages to conceal his professional negligence and gain an unfair advantage at trial in the Malpractice Action,” the bar certification said.

The bar charges include alleged violations of rules prohibiting false statements and “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

No assets

Ferrance says his efforts to collect on the judgment have been largely fruitless. He said Covati has closed his law office. Covati reportedly said he had malpractice insurance coverage, but did not timely notify his carrier.

“My client’s not happy, we’re not happy, but it is what it is,” Ferrance said May 4.

Covati did not respond to an email seeking comment. There was no answer at the phone number listed as part of Covati’s address of record with the VSB.