N.C. Business Court judge has ruled that a Winston-Salem dentist must pay her former partner $2.34 million in compensatory and punitive damages for transferring money for personal use without permission.
The Nov. 7 ruling by John Jolly Jr., chief special Superior Court judge for complex business cases, concluded a nearly 2½-year-old lawsuit brought by Dr. Nicole LeCann against Dr. Sharon Cobham. The court specializes in complex business cases.
Cobham was accused of making “unjustified expense reimbursements” to herself. The lawsuit said Cobham used the money to pay for personal expenses that include: mortgage payments on a Charlotte condo occupied by her brother; accommodations at the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte; the purchase of Prada shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue; purchases at Belk; and a Match.com account.
Cobham currently operates Forsyth Family Dental Care at 2912 Maplewood Ave., as well as offices in Burlington and Durham. According to her website, she has plans to open a practice in Greensboro office off Wendover Avenue.
LeCann currently operates practices in Apex and Raleigh.
The dentists did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. David Rooks, Cobham’s attorney, declined Wednesday to comment on the case.
Robert Fields III, LeCann’s attorney, said Wednesday that Cobham did not file a post-trial motion in the 10 days following the ruling. She has 30 days to file an appeal.
“The damages can be paid at any time voluntarily,” Fields said. “There is a legal process through the receiver for collection if necessary.”
According to the judge’s ruling, Cobham began in 2007 “a long series of complicated, wrongful, self-dealing transfers of funds” from their Apex, Burlington, Durham and Raleigh practices to their joint Winston-Salem practice, which eventually went to Cobham’s solely owned Winston-Salem practice.
Cobham was ruled to have committed “constructive fraud” from co-mingling money from the five co-owned dental practices. Jolly awarded $559,888 in compensatory damages and $1.68 million in punitive damages – both listed as personal liabilities.
“The court finds that this amount bears a rational relationship to the sum necessary to punish Cobham for her egregiously wrongful acts, and to deter her and others from committing similar wrongful acts,” Jolly wrote in his ruling.
According to LeCann’s lawsuit, the dentists graduated together from the UNC School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill in 1999 and formed a partnership in 2000 that involved the jointly owned dental practices and three real-estate ventures operated as limited liability companies.
The lawsuit said Cobham served as president of the joint entities, while LeCann served as their administrative manager.
The lawsuit listed the dentists as “close companions and shared a personal relationship,” a phrase Fields said that the judge chose. Although Fields said he did not know what their relationship was, he said it led LeCann to trust Cobham’s business decisions.
Cobham said in her reply to the lawsuit she considered some of her spending as business expenses, such as buying movie tickets and the Prada shoes, as uniform costs. Cobham also said that she provided more money to the five dental practices than she transferred, but, according to the judge, she provided no such documentation.
Once LeCann became aware of the expenditures, she asked that the money be put back into the practices. LeCann filed her lawsuit after Cobham declined to do so. LeCann’s lawsuit also accused Cobham of acts of intimidation and personal abuse, which Cobham denied.
Fields said Cobham’s expenditures were affecting the practices’ ability to make payroll, including checks bouncing, and to pay vendors. The ruling said the practices incurred a combined $54,388 for more than 200 overdraft charges.
Three months after LeCann’s lawsuit was filed, a judge ordered the dissolution of the LLCs and appointed Dr. Joseph Laton as receiver, who happened to be a dentist.
Fields said Laton was able to keep the individual practices open long enough for LeCann and Cobham to form new LLCs and buy the individual practices they now operate.
A second receiver, Christine Mayhew, was appointed in March 2011. Mayhew is responsible for pursuing Cobham’s financial obligations if she doesn’t make them voluntarily, Fields said.
“It remains to be seen whether the defendant has the money” to pay the damages, Fields said.
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