Firm Ripped Over 'Ploy' to Keep Malpractice Case in Home County
A Butler County law firm has been harshly criticized by the state Superior Court for filing a declaratory judgment action against a former client, because the court said it was nothing more than a "ploy" to have the former client's legal malpractice action tried in the firm's home county.
The former client alleged the firm had filed its action in Butler County to "avoid defending a malpractice case in a jurisdiction where they did not have the advantage of familiarity with the local judiciary," the opinion said.
The legal malpractice suit stemmed from a $19 million settlement Dillon McCandless King Coulter & Graham secured in a personal injury case for the former client and her then-husband. The former client claimed the firm had a conflict of interest and helped her husband and former father-in-law prevent her from having access to most of the settlement money.
The firm claimed it had reduced its contingency fee in order to "fund" the former client's recovery for her loss of consortium claim.
The former client sued the firm for legal malpractice in Allegheny County. The firm filed a declaratory judgment action in Butler County, alleging the woman was trying to alter the terms of the revised fee agreement. A Butler County judge granted the firm's motion to have both cases coordinated and transferred to Butler County.
But the unanimous three-judge panel in Dillon McCandless King Coulter & Graham v. Rupert said it was "improper" for the Butler County judge to coordinate and transfer Jacqueline Rupert's legal malpractice action because she was never looking to negate the fee agreement.
The firm's declaratory judgment action, the court said, was "filed on an entirely false premise."
"A declaration was sought concerning the validity of an accord that Jacqueline never claimed was void," Superior Court Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the court. "Rather, Jacqueline accused [the firm] of misconduct in connection with obtaining her assent to the accord. This action was based upon fabricated allegations, which were not oversights or minor mistakes but which formed the complete underpinning for the lawsuit.
"The present litigation was nothing more than a ploy designed to deprive Jacqueline of the benefit of her chosen forum in which to litigate her malpractice case."
Bowes was joined on the panel by Judges Christine Donohue and Sallie Updyke Mundy.