Professional Responsibility

It’s probably never a good idea to proceed without a lawyer in any Court, but if you are a non-lawyer and insist on proceeding pro se in the Business Court, don’t be defiant and obnoxious.  You will not like the result.

Two of the Defendants (JW Ray and Digi-Plus LLC) in a case called London Leasing LLC v. Arcus  terminated the counsel representing them and decided to proceed on their own.

They did that in a high-handed and arrogant way. When Plaintiff’s counsel called Ray to try to arrange a mediation, Defendant Ray told him that:

(1) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would attend any mediation in person, and would only attend by teleconference ‘so that the mediator could explain to Plaintiff how absurd or ridiculous Plaintiff’s claims are in this lawsuit;’

(2) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would offer any payment towards a settlement;

(3) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would hire replacement counsel;

(4) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would respond to any discovery requests;

(5) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would pay any judgment levied against them in the lawsuit; and

(6) neither Ray nor DigiPlus would participate in the lawsuit unless they were “arrested for criminal conduct.”

Order ¶6.

As you can imagine, the (unpublished) Order entered by Judge McGuire was not complimentary of this discourtesy.  He stated that these two Defendants had "openly flouted this Court’s [case management] order and the applicable North Carolina rules."  ¶14.

The relief granted by the Court in light of this rude behavior — after ruling that lesser sanctions would be inadequate given the "seriousness of the misconduct" (Order ¶15)  — was to strike the Answer of these Defendants and to enter default against them.

The only punishment not delivered by Judge McGuire was not noting that Ray was engaging in the unauthorized practice of law if he was also speaking on behalf of DigiPlus LLC.

 

Be sure that an LLC member has the authority to hire you before accepting the representation of the LLC in a suit by or against another LLC member.  That authorization generally requires a majority of the interest of the members, at least under the default provisions of the LLC Act, which apply in the absence of an Operating Agreement providing to the contrary.

But what if a 50% owner goes ahead and retains counsel to represent the LLC against her 50% co-owner, who does not consent to the representation?  That can only turn out badly, even if there is a written fee agreement signed by the 50% owner.

In Judge Bledsoe’s decision last week in Battles v. Bywater, LLC, 2014 NCBC 52, the Court found that one of the 50% owners of two LLCs which were defendants did not have the power to hire counsel for the LLCs, either under the default provisions of the LLC Act or the terms of the Operating Agreement of one of the LLCs.

There is nothing new in holding that one 50% member does not have the power to retain counsel for the LLC in a lawsuit against the other 50% member.   The Court of Appeals held seven years ago, in Crouse v. Mineo, 189 N.C. App. 232, 658 S.E.2d 33 (2007) that:

a fifty percent LLC member ‘lacked authority to cause [the LLC] to institute [an]  . . . action on its own behalf’ against the other fifty percent LLC member).

Id. at 239, 658 S.E.2d 37-38.

The Business Court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that he, as a 50% owner of the LLCs, had the authority under the new LLC Act to hire counsel without the consent of his adversarial member. 

Judge Bledsoe struck all of the filings made in the case by the lawyers for the LLC, though "without prejudice to Defendants’ right to refile these or other legally supportable and permissible documents after retention of new counsel." Op. ¶52.

That’s an expensive ruling for the lawyers who had been retained without proper authorization to represent the LLCs.  They had represented to the Court that they were owed $85,000 in legal fees by the LLCs that they were disqualified from representing.

Apart from guidance from the Bywater case of the necessary approval of the LLC members for an LLC representation, the case also makes clear that a management deadlock is a valid basis for dissolving an LLC per G.S. §57D-6-02(2).

Deadlock was formerly mentioned specifically in the dissolution statute (in the former G.S. §57C-6-02(2)), but the revised act deleted any reference to "deadlock" as a basis for dissolution in G.S. §57D-6-02.

Judge Bledsoe found that since the statute now allows dissolution where "it is not practicable to conduct the LLC’s business," that this embraces deadlock.  He supported that conclusion with reference to the similar language of the Delaware LLC Act.  The Delaware Court of Chancery held in Fisk Ventures, LLC v. Segal, 2009 Del. Ch. LEXIS 7 (Del. Ch. 2009) that if:

a board deadlock prevents the limited liability company from operating or from furthering its stated business purpose, it is not reasonably practicable for the company to carry on its business.

Op. ¶19 (quoting Fisk Ventures at *12)

 

 

 

United States District Court Judge Catherine Eagles of the Middle District of North Carolina delivered an admonition last week to all of the lawyers with cases in her Court.

You can read the "text order" here, but she said it was prompted by a recent "rash of briefs"  that were out of compliance with the M.D.N.C.’s Local Rules.  The Order was entered in "most of the Court’s pending civil cases,"  even those in which offending briefs had not been filed.

She said that the Order was being entered "to assist counsel in avoiding future problems."

Examples of Local Rule requirements that she indicated are mandatory were:

spacing, margin, and font constraints [and] excessive or inappropriate use of footnotes designed to avoid page limits will not be allowed.

If you are not familiar with the Court’s "spacing, margin, and font constraints," they are contained in Local Rule 7.1:

The margin at the top of each page shall not be less than one and one-quarter inches, and bottom, left and right margins shall be set at not less than one inch. Typewritten documents shall be double spaced.

All pleadings, motions and other original papers filed with the Clerk shall be in a
fixed-pitch type size no smaller than ten characters per inch or in a proportional font size no smaller than 13 point. There shall be no more than 27 lines of regularly spaced text on a page.

But there’s more to this message than font size and page layout.  Judge Eagles continued by making the obvious points that:

legal arguments require citation to legal authority, and factual assertions unsupported by citations pointing to specific, authenticated facts existing in the record will be disregarded.

She warned that of "particular concern":

are summary judgment briefs which fail to provide cites to the record for factual assertions. L.R. 56.1(d); see also L.R. 7.2(a)(2). Litigants must include such citations, and the citations must be specific. It is not sufficient, for example, to cite a fifty-page exhibit for a particular point, but yet to fail to identify where within that fifty-page document the evidence for that point is located. As a reminder, the Court is under no duty to scour the record to find support for a party’s factual assertions.

The Court, said Judge Eagles, is not under the obligation to "do legal research for parties who make perfunctory arguments without citation to legal authority. "

And this is not the first time that lawyers have been chided by the Court for not providing pinpoint citations to the evidence before the Court and support for the positions being taken.  Judge Eagles cited some of these cases in her text order.

For example, Judge Schroeder said in Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124737 (M.D.N.C. 2014)  that:

Throughout her briefing, [the plaintiff] fails to provide any pinpoint citation to a particular page or paragraph, providing instead only cites to whole documents generally. This practice violates Local Rule 7.2(a)(2), substantially burdens the court with the obligation of investigating the basis of claimed facts — a task the court need not do, and renders a party’s position subject to rejection on this basis alone.

*1 at n.1.

And how about failing to cite authority to support your argument?  Also a bad thing, as observed by Judge Eagles in Hayes v. Self Help Credit Union, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116888 (M.D.N.C. 2014):

the plaintiff has made numerous arguments as to which she has cited no legal authority of any kind.  It is not the role or the responsibility of the Court to undertake the legal research needed to support or rebut a perfunctory argument.

*2.

 And to the same effect is Judge Schroeder’s statement in Hughes v. B/E Aerospace:

A substantial portion of Hughes’ factual briefing fails to cite to the record, in violation of Local Rule 7.2(a)(2). A party should not expect a court to do the work that it elected not to do.

2014 WL 906220,  *1 & n.1 (M.D.N.C. 2014),

Consider yourself on notice of how to file a proper brief in the Middle District, even if you were not one of the many lawyers who received this text order.

[Disclosure: I am one of the members of the Local Rules Committee in the Middle District]

 

Say you are filing an Answer to a Complaint.  NC Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c)  lists a host of affirmative defenses you might raise.  They are:

accord and satisfaction, arbitration and award, assumption of risk, contributory negligence, discharge in bankruptcy, duress, estoppel, failure of consideration, fraud, illegality, injury by fellow servant, laches, license, payment, release, res judicata, statute of frauds, statute of limitations, truth in actions for defamation, usury, waiver, and any other matter constituting an avoidance or affirmative defense.

Do you want to plead all of those, even though you don’t currently have a basis to support them, hoping that you will find some facts in discovery to support them?

That’s pretty much what the Plaintiffs did when responding to a crossclaim in National Financial Partners Corp. v. Ray, 2014 NCBC 49, decided on Wednesday by Judge Bledsoe.  The Plaintiffs raised nearly fifty affirmative defenses, hoping that they would generate facts later on to support their myriad defenses.

Many of their defenses were not supported by any facts pertinent to the lawsuit, although the Plaintiffs argued that it was too premature in the litigation for their affirmative defenses to be dismissed and that discovery might yield facts to support their defenses.

The Defendants moved to strike per NCRCP 12(f).  Judge Bledsoe wrote that:

‘[T]o survive a motion to strike, a defendant must offer more than a "bare-bones conclusory allegation which simply names a legal theory but does not indicate how the theory is connected to the case at hand."’

Op. ¶34 (quoting Villa v. Ally Fin., Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25624, at *6 (M.D.N.C. Feb. 28, 2014)(citation omitted).

It didn’t make a difference that the Plaintiffs had a good faith belief that discovery might provide a basis for the defenses stricken by Judge Bledsoe. He said that:

Plaintiffs’ professed good faith belief that their presently unsupported defenses will acquire the requisite factual support through the discovery stage of these proceedings does not alter the reality that these defenses were speculative at the time Plaintiffs asserted them in their responsive pleading.

 Op. ¶35.

Some of the arguments raised by the Plaintiffs in support of the defenses they had stated revealed their speculative nature on their face.  For example, on their defense of accord and satisfaction, Plaintiffs said that:

‘[i]t is . . .far from certain that I[] Plaintiffs did not receive full and complete return of whatever funds they provided to Mr. Stokes’.

And the defense of "another action pending" was also quite imaginary.  The Plaintiffs said that:

‘[n]o action is pending of which Plaintiffs are currently aware’ but noted that ‘[s]uit may have been filed against Defendants somewhere else or against Plaintiffs in some other jurisdiction.’

Op. ¶¶35(iv) and (ix).

If you are, like me, too critical to be an even-tempered Judge and are wondering if there are sanctions available against a party pleading a horde of defenses without any factual support for them, the answer is that there might be.  Judge Bledsoe observed in a footnote that "Plaintiffs’ assertion of numerous affirmative defenses with little or no factual support can also raise concerns under Rule 11 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure."  Op. ¶36 & n.7.

He also quoted a Third Circuit case for the proposition that: “the practice of ‘throwing in the kitchen
sink’ at times may be so abusive as to merit Rule 11 condemnation.”)  Id. (quoting  Mary Ann Pensiero, Inc. v. Lingle, 847 F.2d 90, 97 (3d Cir. 1988)).

But no sanctions were entered.  Judge Bledsoe struck fifteen of the speculative defenses with leave to the Plaintiffs to plead them again in the event that they were able to develop evidence through discovery that the defenses could be properly asserted.  Op. ¶36.

 

Let’s say that you’ve tried a case, you have lost on a few of your claims, but you won a couple of claims and have gotten a judgment for damages against the defendant for $25,000.  You’ve billed your client $1,162,895 for your services and your mixed success. And you have a statutory basis for recovering your attorneys’ fees.

What do you think the result of a motion to the Court for more than a million dollars in fees would be on those bare facts?  Astonishment from the Judge to whom you’ve made the fee request?  Maybe a lecture?

Judge Gale was not astonished at the more than a million dollars in fees sought on similar facts in his ruling last week following a trial in Out of the Box Developers, LLC v. Doan Law, LLP, 2014 NCBC 39 , and he did not lecture on the amount of the fees, except maybe once (see below).  In making his ruling he made a number of valuable observations on fee awards in cases of mixed success, like Out of the Box.  The basis for attorneys’ fees?  Two of the jury’s answers to the issues supported a finding of unfair and deceptive practices, allowing for fees under G.S. §75-16.1.

First, he said that"[i]f a plaintiff brings multiple claims arising from a common nucleus of facts, and succeeds on some claims but not others, the court is not necessarily required to allocate fees between the successful and unsuccessful claims."  Op. ¶51

Second, even so, "where the fee requested and the success achieved are incongruous, an adjustment must be made to assure that the fee awarded is reasonable."  Id.

Third, in determining the amount of an appropriate adjustment, the Court may apply a "percentage reduction method."  Judge Gale applied a 50% reduction to the invoices presented by Plaintiff’s counsel.

And finally, as far as a lecture, Judge Gale delivered a mild rebuke to Plaintiff’s counsel for overlawyering the case.  He said:

the invoices  [presented by Plaintiff’s counsel] demonstrate that [Plaintiff’s] counsel engaged in what has become the all-too-common practice in today’s litigation environment of having multiple lawyers attend a task where a single attorney might suffice.

Op. ¶60 (emphasis added).

He dampened that criticism by continuing:

particularly in complex cases, there are certain occasions where it is necessary, and indeed efficient, for multiple attorneys to participate, for example, in client or attorney conferences where core theories or strategies are developed.

Id.

After that observation, the Court eliminated the time billed at trial for a third attorney, ruling that the two more senior attorneys (a partner and an associate) could have handled the trial on their own.  He took pains to note that his elimination of that attorney’s fees was "no reflection on the quality of her participation, as she contributed well."  Id.

Judge Gale also eliminated a fair amount of associate time from the fee request due to changes in the associates working on the case, which he attributed to the long duration of the case (it ran for four years).  In some instances, he reduced the associate time by 75%.

For those who are looking for a barometer of the reasonableness of their hourly rates, Judge Gale found the partner’s rate of $495 an hour to be "reasonable and appropriate," as he did for the lead associate’s hourly rate of $260 an hour.  Other associate rates of $180 to $250 per hour were found similarly reasonable.  So were legal assistant rates of $130 an hour.

All that discussion and the accompanying reductions led to an award of $467,827.63 against a fee request of $1,162,895, after Judge Gale parsed through more than 40 monthly invoices, invoice by invoice.  That award bears interest at the legal rate until it is paid.  Order ¶70 (4).

Will the Defendant pay it?  I doubt it, based on the facts their own counsel moved to withdraw before trial because his bills had not been paid and he did not expect them to be paid going forward (see Order ¶19), and because the Defendant’s pretrial settlement offers were negligible and they did not include an offer to pay the sanctions of approximately $35,000 which had been previously ordered against it for discovery non-compliance.  Plus, who has half a million dollars sitting around to pay the opposing party’s attorneys’ fees?

You might be wondering about the daily interest on that fee award.  My calculation is $102.54 per day at an 8% interest rate (the rate allowed by G.S. §24-1).

If you remember the name Out of the Box, that’s probably because I have written about decisions in the case several times: about sanctions for violations of a Protective Order; the Business Court’s dismissal of an appeal of those sanctions; sanctions for violation of a discovery order; and the proper way top serve a non-party with a subpoena.

The lawsuit filed by the Atlantic Coast Conference against the University of Maryland continues to percolate in the North Carolina Business Court.  But the University will have to proceed without its chosen attorneys, as the Court last week refused to admit them on a pro hac vice basis.  The decision came in an Order in Atlantic Coast Conference v. University of Maryland.

If you have forgotten about the ACC’s lawsuit against the University of Maryland, it was filed by the ACC to recover the $50 million exit fee it says is due from the University upon its departure from the ACC to join the Big Ten Conference.  The University disputes the validity of the exit fee, and has counterclaimed in very detailed claims for violation of antitrust laws and unfair competition.

The Maryland University was represented by a lawyer from the Maryland Attorney General’s office, and two lawyers from the Milwaukee firm Foley & Lardner.  When these lawyers moved to be admitted pro hac, the ACC objected.  It argued that the counsel from Foley & Lardner were in violation of Rule 1.7 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct due to their representation in other matters of Florida State, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia, members of the ACC, and the University of Louisville, which officially joined the ACC on July 1st.

Rule 1.7 says that "[a] lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest."   There is a concurrent conflict of interest if:

(1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or

(2) the representation of one or more clients may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client, or a third person, or by a personal interest of the lawyer. 

The ACC lawyers argued that the University of Maryland’s lawyers were acting adversely to the interests of their other University clients.  One of the comments to Rule 1.7 is favorable to the University’s position.  Comment 34 says that "[a] lawyer who represents a corporation or other organization does not, by virtue of that representation, necessarily represent any constituent or affiliated organization."

But Comment 34 ends on a bad note for the University’s argument.  It says that this qualification does not apply if "the lawyer’s obligations to either the organizational client or the new client are likely to limit materially the lawyer’s representation of the other client."

The University’s (former) counsel argued that they could ameliorate any conflict by hiring independent counsel to take the depositions of any institution which was a member of the ACC and represented by them.  There is an ABA Opinion that supports this position, ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Formal Opinion 92-367, but it also says that if the "conflict is clearly forseeable, then the solution, absent client consent, is clear enough: the prospective engagement must be declined."

The Court refused to admit the University’s attorneys on a pro hac basis, noting the lack of any conflict waiver, and stating that:

[w]hile it is true that a party’s right to choose its own counsel is generally considered fundamental, ‘an out-of-state attorney has no absolute right to practice law in another forum.’

Order ¶6.

Judge Jolly did admit pro hac an attorney from the Maryland Attorney General’s office to represent the University, observing "the public policy behind permitting the attorney general of another state to practice in North Carolina, combined with the absence of direct legal authority preventing" his appearance in the case.  Order ¶11.

Is the resolution of this pro hac admission issue a victory for the ACC?  My general philosophy on efforts to preclude opposing counsel from representing a client is that you face a risk that they will be replaced by better lawyers.  In the University’s situation, that seems to be unlikely.  Their now unadmitted counsel looked like a powerhouse in the area of sports law.  So score this as a win for the ACC.  But it’s early in the first quarter.

 

Construction lawyers in North Carolina can breathe a sigh of relief.  On Friday of last week, the Business Court ruled that the service of on-line service provider Lienguard in preparing claims of lien constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. 

You most likely have never heard of Lienguard.  It says on its website that it files throughout the country: "commercial mechanics liens, notices, public and federal bond claims as well as municipal liens." It does this on a fixed price basis.  It charges $495 for the preparation and filing of a mechanics lien.

A committee of the North Carolina State Bar sent Lienguard a cease and desist letter in 2010 informing Lienguard that it had concluded that Lienguard’s conduct constituted the unauthorized practice of law.  Lienguard, notwithstanding the letter, continued offering its services in North Carolina.

The Order in North Carolina State Bar v. Lienguard, Inc., 2014 NCBC 11, followed in the State Bar’s lawsuit.  Lienguard raised a litany of defenses against what it termed the State Bar’s "monopolistic crusade" against the UPL.

Lienguard’s Services Are The Unauthorized Practice Of Law

The Business Court didn’t agree with any of Lienguard’s defenses.  Lienguard argued, for example, that a claim of lien wasn’t a "legal document" and its assistance in preparing those documents was therefore not within the statutory definition of the "practice of law."  Section 84-2.1 of the General Statutes bars non-lawyers from "preparing or aiding in the preparation of "deeds, mortgages, wills, trust instruments, inventories, accounts or reports of guardians, trustees, administrators or executors. . . ." 

Given the absence of "claims of liens" from the language of the statute,  Lienguard said it was not engaged in the practice of law.  Judge Gale looked to G.S. §84-4, which prohibits non-lawyers from preparing "any other legal document."  It took him just twenty words to conclude that a claim of lien is a "legal document":

Clearly, a claim of lien is prepared to enforce the claimant’s statutory lien rights.  It is,
therefore, a “legal document.”

Op. 55.

The Court also ruled that Lienguard’s statements about its expertise in the construction industry, its commitment to compliance with the law,  and its qualifications to prepare claims of lien constituted Lienguard "holding out" that it was licensed to practice law.  There are  administrative regulations in North Carolina that direct that a lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction "shall not. . .  hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in this jurisdiction.” 27 N.C. Admin. Code 02, Rule 5.5(b).

Lienguard’s services also constitute impermissible "legal advice" in violation of Chapter 84.  It provides definitions of lien law terms, gives warnings regarding time requirements, and reminders about sending out preliminary notices.  Those things are "legal advice," when combined with the preparation of legal documents.  Op. 72.

You might remember the "scrivener’s exception" to charges of UPL, which recognizes that merely typing or “scrivening” a petition or legal document does not constitute the practice of law, so long as the non-attorney does not create the document, or advise on how the document should be prepared." Op. 59.  Lienguard wasn’t entitled to this exception because "it performs services beyond that of a scrivener."  Op. 65.

Lienguard’s Constitutional Claims Were Rejected

Lienguard also argued that Chapter 84 is so vague due to its lack of definitions that it cannot be constitutionally applied to it.  The Court rejected that argument, ruling that "there is no vagueness involved in concluding that a claim of lien is a legal document."  Op. 82.  Besides, the NC Supreme Court held almost a century ago that G.S. §84-4 is constitutional and valid. Seawell v. Carolina Motor Club, Inc., 209 N.C. 624, 632, 631 S.E.2d 540, 544 (1936).  And Lienguard hadn’t taken the necessary procedural steps to attack the constitutionality of a statute anyway.  G.S. §1-260 requires service on the Attorney General if the constitutionality of a statute is in question, and he has an opportunity to be heard.

If you are not exhausted from reading this by now, you might be wondering how the Court resolved Lienguard’s argument that the State Bar was in violation of the monopoly clause of the North Carolina Constitution.  That clause says that: "monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free state and shall not be allowed."  N.C. Const. §34.  The State Bar, which is a state agency, has the power to exclude persons from practicing in the legal profession "to protect the public against incompetents and imposters."  Op. 86.  (There was no finding that Lienguard was "incompetent.").  Judge Gale rejected the monopoly claim.

There’s More To Come

The Court’s ruling is not the final round for Lienguard.  The State Bar was directed to prepare a proposed form of permanent injunction for the Court to enter.  It was given twenty days to present it to Lienguard for "comments as to form."  You all know that this type of instruction from a Court can lead to endless back and forth between counsel for the parties.

A couple more things:

The Supreme Court of Ohio, bin 2010,also found Lienguard to be engaged in UPL. 

Also, I was surprised to discover that there are multiple companies in the business of providing DIY lien preparation services in North Carolina.  Companies named zlien, CRM Lien Services, and the Lien Professor all do that.  If the State Bar is truly concerned about stamping out UPL in this area, it has a lot more work to do. 

 

Legalzoom may be a step closer to overcoming the NC State Bar’s assertion that its online legal document service constitutes the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), following yesterday’s ruling in LegalZoom, Inc. v. North Carolina State Bar, 2014 NCBC 9.  Or it may be only a few questions away from a ruling that would impact its ability to conduct business in North Carolina, depending on how you read the decision.

If you need some background on LegalZoom, you probably don’t own a television or you haven’t read my two previous posts on this long simmering dispute, from January 2012 and August 2012.  The company is constantly advertising its legal document generation service which it says on its website "strive(s) to be the best legal document service on the web."  It prepares incorporation papers, wills, trademark applications, and divorce documents and other things for its customers, who want a "do it yourself" approach to law.   LegalZoom has been battling with the NC State Bar in the Business Court since 2010 over whether its service constitutes the UPL.

Yesterday, Judge Gale denied the State Bar’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, ruling that he needed a "more developed record" to make a decision, in 2014 NCBC 9.  Op. 50.

Exceptions To The Unauthorized Practice Of Law and Judge Gale’s Questions

The definition of the "practice of law" is contained in G.S. §84-2.1.  LegalZoom argues that it falls within recognized exceptions to states’ prohibitions on the UPL.  One is known as the “self-help” or the “self-representation” exception, which means "that one can legally undertake activities in his own interests that would be UPL if undertaken for another, or to “practice law” to represent oneself." Op. 58.

The NC Supreme Court weighed in on the "self-help" exception fifty years ago, in State v. Pledger, 257 N.C. 634, 127 S.E.2d 337 (1962), in which it held that a non-lawyer employee of a company in the business of constructing and selling of homes did not engage in the UPL by preparing deeds of trust for homes that his employer sold.  The Court said that:

[a] person, firm or corporation having a primary interest, not merely an incidental interest, in a transaction, may prepare legal documents necessary to the furtherance and completion of the transaction without violating [the law].” Id. at 637, 127 S.E.2d at 339.

Op. ¶61.  Since LegalZoom doesn’t have a "primary interest" in its customers’ business, it wasn’t able to successfully avail itself of the "self-help" exception.

The second exception, relied on more heavily by LegalZoom has been referred to as a “scrivener’s exception,” which essentially means "that unlicensed individuals may record information that another provides without engaging in UPL as long as they do not also provide advice or express legal judgments." Id.

Judge Gale had a number of questions whether the operation of LegalZoom’s online software fit within the scrivener’s exception.  Those questions could not be answered on the existing record.  He posed the following:

if a customer makes one choice presented to him by the [LegalZoom] software, are there portions of the template that are then never shown to the customer? If so, what is the reasoning behind and the legal significance of the software’s determination not to present that portion of the form?  [Does the premise of the Pledger decision] require that only the unlicensed individual make choices in drafting a legal document, and that the choice or risk of an incorrect choice about which portions of a form to include must belong exclusively to the individual? Is there then a legally significant difference between how one engaging in self-representation uses a form book versus LegalZoom’s interactive . . . software? A form book presents the customer with the entire form, often accompanied by opinions or directions on how to use the form, but any choice and its implications are solely the customer’s. Does the LegalZoom software effectively make choices for its customer? Do responses depend in any part on the effects of statements embodied in the software, either those that promote the program or those that disclaim legal advice being given?

Op. ¶66.  Although the Judge was careful to say that these were not the "controlling or only relevant questions,"  Op.¶67, they certainly provide a road map for future resolution of the case via a motion for summary judgment.  

LegalZoom’s Prepaid Legal Services Plan

There’s another aspect to the case, which involves Legaloom’s prepaid legal services plans. The State Bar, which is responsible for registering such plans, refused to register LegalZoom’s plans.  The online vendor said this refusal violated the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.

Judge Gale dismissed that claim, because LegalZoom had not exhausted its remedies by failing to request a hearing before the State Bar.  The Administrative Procedure Act, to which the State Bar is subject, requires a final agency decision before judicial review is allowed. 

LegalZoom had taken the position that requesting a hearing was only optional, and that a hearing would have been futile.  Judge Gale observed that both arguments were foreclosed by NC appellate decisions.  Op.  46, 47.
 

LegalZoom’s Claim that it has been Defamed by the NC State Bar was Dismissed

LegalZoom had made a claim against the State Bar that the Bar’s statements that it was engaging in the UPL were "false and untrue" and that those statements disparaged its product.

Judge Gale found those statements to be barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

 

 

Section 6-21.5 of the North Carolina General Statutes is the closest thing the State has to "loser pays." It allows for the award of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party "if the court finds that there was a complete absence of a justiciable issue of either law or fact raised by the losing party in any pleading."

The plaintiff in Jacobson v. Walsh, 2014 NCBC 2, decided by Judge Murphy this week, didn’t ever give up on his claims for breach of fiduciary duty and fraudulent concealment (which depended on there being a fiduciary duty) even though he had virtually conceded those claims at his deposition. As a result, the Judge awarded fees in an amount to be determined to one of the Defendants.

Why?  The Plaintiff based his fiduciary duty claim against one of the Defendants on his "past investment experiences" with that Defendant (Walsh), as he had alleged in the Complaint.  But at his deposition, the Plaintiff said that he had no prior dealings at all with Defendant Walsh, and that his contrary allegation in the Complaint was "an oversight."  He even conceded at his deposition that there was no fiduciary relationship between him and Walsh.

Notwithstanding those concessions, the Plaintiff did not dismiss his fiduciary duty claim. Judge Murphy concluded that "the losing party persisted in litigating the case after a point where he should reasonably become aware that the pleading he filed no longer contained a justiciable issue." Op. ¶94 (quoting Sunamerica Fin. Corp. v. Bonham, 328 N.C. 254, 258, 400 S.E.2d 435, 438 (1991)).

So how much will Walsh recover in attorneys’ fees?  That remains to be determined.  Walsh was directed to submit an accounting of the the fees "reasonably incurred in defending against" the fiduciary duty and fraudulent concealment claims.  Op. ¶97.  Since there were multiple claims in the Complaint which were dismissed in the Order, the fees attributable to the fiduciary duty claim and the fraudulent concealment claim will be only a portion of the fees charged by Walsh’s lawyers.

If you are wondering, this isn’t the first time that the Business Court has socked an unduly persistent plaintiff with attorneys’ fees per Section 6-21.5.  Judge Gale did that in an Order in McKinnon v. CV Industries, Inc., which I wrote about in June 2012.

Just because an expert says something is so doesn’t mean that it is.  That’s the lesson of Judge Gale’s ruling last week in Carter v. Clements Walker, 2014 NCBC 1.  He rejected the evidentiary value of an expert’s report stating that Plaintiff’s damages were $33 million, saying that it was insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on whether Plaintiff had suffered any damages at all.

Some background will help.  The case is for legal malpractice.  Plaintiff, an inventor, alleged that the Defendant law firm committed malpractice by allowing a domestic patent application to be published before it filed an application for international patent rights.  Since some foreign countries require "absolute patent novelty" before granting a patent, Plaintiff couldn’t obtain a patent in those countries given the filing of the U.S. application.

The case has been up and down from the Court of Appeals.  The COA reversed the previous dismissal of the case.  It’s been the subject of blog posts here twice before, in 2010 and last year.

So now that the COA had breathed new life into the case, how was Plaintiff damaged by the alleged malpractice?  By the loss of the opportunity to sell or license his invention in those foreign countries in which he couldn’t secure a patent. What was the value of those potential revenues? If Plaintiff had had revenues in the U.S. from his invention, those might have served as a benchmark, but the invention had never been manufactured or licensed in this country.

Plaintiff relied on the report of an expert witness, which concluded that he had "lost total gross profits of approximately $33 million between the years of 2010 and 2020" as a result of not obtaining foreign patent rights.

Think that was enough to get to a jury as evidence of damages?  it wasn’t.  Judge Gale ruled that:

In light of the overwhelming evidence that [the Plaintiff]  had [not], at the time of [the expert’s] opinion, ever realized or reasonably projected any commercial value from the invention (even though it had domestic patent protection), [the expert’s] speculative, bare-bones conclusion is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on whether [Plaintiff] suffered damages.

Op. ¶22 (emphasis added).

This isn’t the first time in the Business Court that an expert’s inadequate report has resulted in the dismissal of a case.  Judge Tennille dismissed a malpractice claim in Inland American Winston Hotels, Inc. v. Winston, 2010 NCBC 19 because the expert wasn’t qualified to testify.

And in Blythe v. Bell, 2013 NCBC 8, Judge Gale said in refusing to consider an expert’s report, saying that:

[w]hile the courts do not demand mathematical certitude in calculating lost profits, they do not countenance conjecture or speculation, and conjecture or speculation does not become admissible simply because it is presented by an expert. 

Op. ¶19 (emphasis added).

The Plaintiff didn’t rely solely on the expert’s report.  He also offered documents from the internet which he said showed that other products similar to the invention were being offered in foreign markets.  That didn’t provide admissible evidence in opposition to the motion for summary judgment.  Relying on an opinion from the COA, Judge Gale held that:

Unauthenticated “internet printouts . . . do not constitute admissible evidence for purpose of the analysis required in connection with . . . [a] summary judgment motion[.]”

Op. ¶25 (quoting Rankin v. Food Lion, 706 S.E.2d 310, 316 (N.C. App. 2011).