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Levesque v. Lilley

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

June 9, 2014

PAUL LEVESQUE, et al, Plaintiffs
v.
DANIEL G. LILLEY, ESQ., et al, Defendants

ORDER

Thomas D. Warren, Justice, Superior Court.

Before the court is a motion by third party defendant John Flynn for judgment on the pleadings dismissing the third party complaint and a motion by defendants and third party plaintiffs Daniel Lilley, Christian Foster, and the Daniel G. Lilley Law Offices (collectively, the Lilley defendants) to amend the third party complaint.

Judgment on the Pleadings

A motion for judgment on the pleadings tests the sufficiency of the complaint. 2 C. Harvey, Maine Civil Practice § 12:14. For purposes of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, as on a motion to dismiss, the material allegations of the third party complaint must be taken as admitted. The third party complaint must be read in the light most favorable to the Lilley defendants to determine if it sets forth elements of a cause of action or alleges facts that would entitle the Lilley defendants to relief against Flynn pursuant to some legal theory. See, e.g., In re Wage Payment Litigation, 2000 ME 162 ¶ 3, 759 A.2d 217.

Third Party Complaint Count 1 (Negligence/Contribution)

Count 1 of the third party complaint asserts a claim for negligence and contribution, based on the allegation that Flynn's handling of the appeal was negligent. Third Party Complaint ¶ 4.[1] Flynn argues this count must be dismissed under the principle that a lawyer cannot be held liable to third parties for the performance of the lawyer's professional duties. See DiPietro v. Boynton, 628 A.2d 1019, 1025 (Me. 1993). The problem with this argument is that the premise of the contribution claim is that Flynn violated the standard of care owed to his clients, the Levesques, and not to any third party.

Thus, the contribution claim is not based on any alleged duty owed to the Lilley defendants. The court concludes that if the Lilley defendants are found liable to the Levesques for professional negligence, the DiPietro principle would not prevent the Lilley defendants from seeking contribution from Flynn if they can prove that Flynn was professionally negligent in his handling of the Levesques' appeal.

Flynn also contends that he cannot, as a matter of law, qualify as a joint tortfeasor from whom contribution may be sought. The alleged harm to the plaintiffs, however, is based on the outcome of their case against Central Maine Medical Center. On that issue, if the Lilley defendants are held liable and can prove that professional negligence by Flynn caused or contributed to a result that was less favorable than otherwise would have been obtained, Flynn would qualify as a joint tortfeasor.[2]

Third Party Complaint Count 2 (Breach of Fiduciary Duty)

Count 2 of the third party complaint alleges that Flynn breached a fiduciary duty to the Lilley defendants. However, the third party complaint alleges that Flynn had terminated his employment with the Lilley defendants during the summer of 2010 and represented the Levesques on their appeal at a time when he was no longer employed by the Lilley defendants. Third Party Complaint ¶ 3. The alleged breach of fiduciary duty is alleged to have occurred after the appeal decision, when Flynn is alleged to have advised the Levesques that they had a potential malpractice claim against the Lilley defendants. Third Party Complaint ¶ 9.

Although the Lilley defendants allege that Flynn had a fiduciary duty to the Lilley defendants that " survived" Flynn's termination of employment, id., the court disagrees. Assuming that Flynn had a fiduciary duty to the Lilley firm while he was employed there, [3] the third party complaint does not contain any factual allegations that would support the continued existence of a fiduciary duty once the employment relationship was severed. The court can find no inherent basis in Flynn's relationship as a former employee that would conceivably give rise to a continuing fiduciary duty.

In addition, the Law Court has held that a general allegation of a fiduciary relationship is insufficient and that " the factual foundations of an alleged fiduciary relationship must be pled with specificity." Bryan R. v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1999 ME 144 ¶ ¶ 20-22, 738 A.2d 839. No factual basis has been alleged for a continuing fiduciary relationship or for the assertion that " there was a great disparity of position and influence between Flynn and Lilley and this disparity favored Flynn." Third Party Complaint ¶ 9.[4]

It also bears emphasis that the fiduciary duty claim against Flynn is based on alleged advice given by Flynn to the Levesques at a time when Flynn was representing the Levesques. Unlike the contribution claim, which is based on an alleged violation of the standard of care owed by Flynn to his clients, the Lilley defendants' fiduciary duty claim is premised on an alleged duty owed to a party other than Flynn's clients. This claim runs squarely afoul of the general principle that, absent fraud or collusion, a lawyer is not liable to third parties for the performance of professional duties as an advocate for his clients. See DiPietro v. Boynton, 628 A.2d at 1025, citing Layman v. Layman, 578 A.2d 314, 316 (Md.App. 1990). Once he was no longer employed by the Lilley defendants, Flynn's duty was owed to his clients, not to his former employer.

Flynn is therefore entitled to judgment on the pleadings dismissing count 2 of the third party complaint.

Third Party Complaint Count 3

Count 3 of the third party complaint asserts a claim for tortious interference with contract or advantageous economic relationship, based on the theory that the Lilley defendants had a valid contract with the Levesques for attorney's fees which Flynn fraudulently induced the Levesques to breach.

To prevail on a claim of tortious interference with contract or advantageous economic relationship, the Lilley defendants must prove that a valid contract existed; that Flynn interfered with that contract by fraud; and that Flynn's interference proximately caused damages. Rutland v. Mullen, 2002 ME 98 ¶ 13, 798 A.2d 1104. To prove interference by fraud, the Lilley defendants must prove, inter alia, that (1) Flynn made a false representation (2) of a material fact (3) with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of whether that representation was true or false. Id. ¶ 14.

In addition, M.R.Civ.P. 9(b) requires that in all averments of fraud, the circumstances constituting fraud shall be stated with particularity.[5] See James v. MacDonald, 1998 ME 148 ¶ 8, 712 A.2d 1054 (applying Rule 9(b) to tortious interference by fraud claim). The specific allegations in the third party complaint are that Flynn fraudulently induced the Levesques to breach the contract by

among other things, making false representations of material facts concerning Lilley's alleged negligent prior handling of the Levesques' case, representations that Flynn knew were not true or were made in reckless disregard of the truth.

Third Party Complaint ¶ 14.

The allegation that Flynn engaged in fraud would remove the third party complaint from the principle that a lawyer is not ordinarily subject to liability to third parties for the performance of his professional duties to his clients. See Layman v. Layman, 578 A.2d at 316, cited in DiPietro, 628 A.2d at 1025. However, the Lilley defendants have failed to plead this count with the requisite particularity. In particular, the third party complaint does not allege the specific material facts which Flynn allegedly misrepresented to the Levesques.

This is particularly important under the circumstances of the instant case because a lawyer is obligated to provide his clients with his best professional judgment and a lawyer cannot be held liable for advising a client that, in his opinion, the client has a legal malpractice claim against a former attorney. This is true whether or not the legal malpractice claim is ultimately successful. See Rutland v. Mullen, 2002 ME 98 ¶ 15 (assertions of legal claims, even if later proven invalid, are insufficient as a matter of law to support a finding of tortious interference by fraud). Indeed, if any lawyer who advises a client to resist a claim for breach of contract were subject to a claim of tortious interference, then every contract claim could be joined with a tortious interference claim against the opposing lawyer.

At a minimum, only if a lawyer makes misrepresentations of material facts and does so either knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth can a tortious interference claim potentially be asserted. In this case, the Lilley defendants have not alleged any specific facts that Flynn is alleged to have knowingly misrepresented, and Flynn is therefore entitled to judgment on the pleadings on count 3 of the third party complaint.

Lilley Defendants' Motion to Amend

The Lilley defendants' motion to amend seeks to add a fourth count of the third party complaint, seeking contribution based on Flynn's allegedly negligent advice that the Levesques should settle their claim rather than pursue a new trial after the Law Court remand.[6] Without expressing any opinion as to the ultimate viability of that claim, the court concludes that the amendment sought at least states an additional claim for contribution based on alleged negligence and will allow the amendment.

The entry shall be;

1. Third party defendant Flynn's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied as to Count 1 of the third party complaint (negligence/contribution) except to the extent that Count 1 seeks any relief other than contribution in the event that the Lilley defendants are held liable to the Levesques.

2. Flynn's motion is granted as to Counts 2 and 3 of the third party complaint (breach of fiduciary duty and tortious interference with contract), and judgment on the pleadings is entered dismissing those counts of the third party complaint.

3. The Lilley defendants' motion to amend the third party complaint is granted, without prejudice to any defenses that may be asserted by Flynn, who shall have 10 days from receipt of this order in which to file an answer to the amended third party complaint.

The Clerk is directed to incorporate this order in the docket by reference pursuant to Rule 79(a).


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