Attorney malpractice claims in $100 million D.C. patent malpractice suit survive preliminary motions
In Lans v. Adduci Mastriani & Schaumberg L.L.P., No. 02-2165 (D.D.C. May 23, 2011), the District Court, in a 120-page opinion, denied the defendants' motion to dismiss an attorney malpractice suit arising out of patent litigation. In this suit, the plaintiffs claim that the defendants' alleged misdeeds resulted in the loss of the plaintiffs' proprietary interests in a patent worth more than $100 million.
Judge Walton's opinion is predominantly a discussion of challenges raised by defendants concerning personal jurisdiction under the D.C. long-arm jurisdiction statute, concerning the fiduciary shield doctrine, and concerning the application of issue and claim preclusion based on decisions in the underlying litigation. Judge Walton dismissed the plaintiffs' civil RICO claims.
Concerning the malpractice claims, Judge Walton ruled that although no federal claims remained in the case, the state law malpractice claims require resolution of substantial questions of federal patent law under 28 U.S. C. sec. 1338(a). Judge Walton decided that the Court would maintain subject matter jurisdiction over the malpractice claim, due to the need to litigate the issue of patent infringement and resulting damages in the malpractice claim. Further, the court maintained supplemental jurisdiction over all the remaining state-law claims in the case.
The defendants had argued that the plaintiffs' claims for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing should be dismissed because they were all duplicative of the malpractice claim, arose out of the same facts as the negligence claim, and required essentially the same standard of care. The Court rejected this argument, on the grounds that the various causes of action each rested on different proof. The malpractice claim was based on the alleged failure to investigate and clarify ownership of the patent. The breach of contract claim was based on alleged failure to carry out the terms of the contingency fee agreement, and on alleged conversion of funds owed under the terms of the fee agreement. The breach of the implied covenant of good faith was based on the same facts as the breach of contract claim. The breach of fiduciary duty claim centered on alleged violations of the D.C. Code of Professional Conduct and the Swedish Bar's Canon of Ethics, including among other things failure to disclose conflicts of interest. Thus, the Court found that the fiduciary duty claims did not arise out of the same facts as the malpractice claim, and that a failed malpractice claim would not neessarily preclude recovery on a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. Thus, the Court found that none of the other state-law claims were duplicative of the malpractice claims.
Interestingly, the Court also rejected an argument by the defendant law firm that an independent cause of action for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing does not exist in the District of Columbia for claims based on an attorney's representation of a client. See slip op. at 118. The Court distinguished Jacobsen v. Oliver, 201 F.Supp. 2d 93, 98 n. 2 (D.D.C. 2002), on the grounds that Jacobsen dismissed the implied covenant count because it was identical to a malpractice claim in that case. But in this case, the plaintiffs' implied covenant claims were founded upon their contingent fee agreement with the defendant law firm, not on the legal representation or alleged malpractice. Therefore, Judge Walton reasoned, the general rule applies that in every contract there is an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. "No cases addressing legal malpractice have carved out an exception for such cases, and therefore, just like other contracts, contracts with attorneys are subject to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing."
Minimum contacts analysis for personal jurisdiction over foreign components manufacturer
In Robert Windsor, Jr., et al., v. Spinner Industry Co., Ltd., et al., Civil No. JKB 10-114 (D.Md. Dec. 15, 2011), the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland analyzed the appropriate standard by which to determine whether a foreign corporation has sufficient minimum contacts in order to assert personal jurisdiction over the defendant under the U.S. Supreme Court's holdings in Asahi Metal Indus, co., v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (2987) and J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd., v. Nicastro, 131 S.Ct. 2780 (2011).
Plaintiffs brought suit against defendants after the front wheel of Robert Windsor?s bicycle dislodged, causing him and his toddler son, to be thrown to the ground. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants were involved in the design, manufacture, or assembly of the bicycle or its components, the defects of which were the proximate cause of the accident. Defendant, Joy Industrial Company ("Joy"), a Taiwanese company who manufactured the "quick release skewer" mechanism which secures the wheels to the bicycle, moved to dismiss all claims against it on the grounds that it was not subject to personal jurisdiction in Maryland.
Since plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing personal jurisdiction, plaintiffs argued that, even though Joy had no direct contact with Maryland, the nationwide marketing of Joy's products by intermediaries created sufficient minimum contacts to establish personal jurisdiction. Specifically, Joy sold its products to distributors, manufacturers, and trading companies in the U.S., which then market or sell the product in Maryland. Thus, it was foreseeable that Joy's product would be sold in Maryland and Joy availed itself to the forum jurisdiction.
In analyzing whether the Court had specific jurisdiction over a non-resident manufacturer whose only connection to the forum was that its products were sold there by a third-party distributor the Court looked to the U.S. Supreme Court's opinions in Asahi and McIntyre. Unfortunately, neither Asahi nor McIntyre were majority opinions causing ambiguity as to what standard actually applied to determine jurisdiction is these cases.
Without a majority opinion, the District Court sought to find consensus between the plurality and concurring opinions "on the narrowest grounds" to fashion an appropriate standard. In so doing, the Court found that, contrary to the plaintiffs' position, "McIntyre clearly rejects foreseeability as the standard for personal jurisdiction" and instead "specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant's deliberate connection with the forum state." "Beyond this, however, McIntyre merely affirms that status quo." Consequently, the District Court relied upon the Fourth Circuit Court's precedent on the issue which largely adopted Justice O'Connor's plurality position in Asahi, i.e., a restrictive view that requires a defendant take some deliberate and overt action to target the markets of the forum State. The Fourth Circuit analyzed minimum contacts on the basis of "whether a defendant has created a substantial connection to the forum state by action purposefully directed toward the forum state or otherwise invoking the benefits and protections of the laws of the state," and specifically rejected the notion that a state could assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant merely because the company expected its product would ultimately be sold in the state.
Applied here, the Court found that the facts were insufficient to demonstrate jurisdiction over Joy based solely upon the motions and that the plaintiffs had failed to offer any details regarding the particular chain of distribution that brought the allegedly defective product to Maryland, or that Joy had any "additional contact" evincing intent to serve the Maryland bicycle market in particular. However, there was still a question of whether jurisdiction was proper since the manufacturers and distributors to whom Joy sells its products, not only market their products in Maryland, but maintain established channels of distribution there, suggesting a regular course of sales. Accordingly, the Court held Joy's Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction in abeyance in order to conduct a hearing to determine the extent of Joy's contacts with Maryland.
Posted by Robert D. Anderson on 01/23/2012 at 06:47 PM
Federal Civil Procedure