Updated at 4:58 p.m.
In a 120-page opinion (PDF) released yesterday afternoon, a Washington federal judge affirmed that a foreign-based law firm with few physical ties to Washington and limited involvement in an underlying case could still be the target of a legal malpractice suit in Washington based on its communications and visits over the years.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton upheld the majority of claims brought by Swedish scientist Hakan Lans, who is suing his former attorneys in Sweden and Washington over their handling of patent infringement suits he unsuccessfully pursued starting in the late 1990s. The two defendant firms – Sweden-based Advokatfirman Delphi & Co. and Washington-based Adduci, Mastriani & Schaumberg – had filed motions for dismissal.
According to his complaint (PDF), Lans developed color graphics technology for computers starting in the 1970s. He patented this technology in several countries, including the United States, where his patent was registered in 1981 and expired in 1999.
In the late 1990s, Lans was advised by Delphi to hire Adduci, Mastriani & Schaumberg, or AMS, to help him pursue patent infringers. In 1997, Lans unsuccessfully filed suit against a group of computer manufacturing companies in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for infringement.
AMS continued to represent Lans when he appealed the dismissals and also pursued additional infringement suits against the same computer companies. He was again unsuccessful on both fronts.
The computer companies then sued Lans and AMS for fees. The judge ruled Lans was liable, but AMS was not. In 2001, AMS and Lans parted ways. Lans sued AMS, later adding Delphi as a defendant, accusing his former counsel of mishandling his cases and knowingly making the errors that he believes cost him the litigation. Lans also challenged the judge’s previous ruling that AMS would not be liable for fees owed to the computer companies.
Delphi argued for dismissal on jurisdictional grounds, noting that they had minimal contacts with Washington and also claiming that if the suit moved forward, Sweden would be a more appropriate forum. AMS argued that the majority of Lans’ claims were barred by rules preventing relitigation of already settled issues, also known as the doctrines of claim and issue preclusion.
Walton ruled that just because a company has no physical ties to the United States, the extent of their business dealings here can open the door to jurisdiction. He found that Washington’s long-arm statute applied in this case because counsel with Sweden-based Delphi had regular communication with Lans and AMS, met with both parties in Washington, and contracted with AMS to assist with litigation in Washington.
Walton also dealt with one issue of first impression–whether an alternative forum should be accepted as a reason for dismissal if it would only apply to some of the defendants. In this, Delphi argued Sweden would be appropriate, but Walton wrote that since they did not show that a Swedish court would have jurisdiction over AMS, and also that Sweden would definitively prove a more appropriate forum, its arguments failed.
“While it is true that Sweden also has an interest in regulating the conduct of Swedish lawyers, this is not a case comprised solely of Swedish parties, nor are all of the attorney defendants members of the Swedish legal establishment, as the AMS Defendants are District of Columbia attorneys,” he wrote.
Walton denied AMS’ motion to dismiss based on claim and issue preclusion, noting that previous litigation dealt with some, but not all, of the legal malpractice allegations addressed in Lans’ complaint. He did dismiss Lans’ racketeering claims against AMS, but upheld most of his other breach of contract and fiduciary duty claims.
Lans’ attorney, Jack McKay of Washington’s Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, declined to comment. AMS is being represented by Washington’s Eccleston & Wolf and Delphi is being represented by Washington’s Bryan Cave; attorneys with both firms could not immediately be reached for comment.
An earlier version of the article had misstated Jack McKay's name.