A Maryland woman suing Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson pro se for legal malpractice survived a motion to dismiss today, although the District of Columbia Superior Court judge made it clear that he was doubtful of the case's merits and that he'd like both sides to attempt to resolve the case.
Fried Frank agreed to represent Michelle Etlin pro bono in early 2008, to assist her in defending against an attempt by Virginia authorities to enforce a child support action against Etlin in Virginia and Maryland. Etlin sued (PDF) the firm in Oct. 2011, claiming they failed to adequately represent her. She accused firm attorneys of making decisions that harmed her interests, ignoring her wishes and misinforming her of what was going on.
The defendants denied any wrongdoing, writing in a motion (PDF) that they “provided the top quality legal services that the firm is known for” and secured dismissal of one of the cases Etlin had asked them to fight before their representation ended. The firm and individual attorneys named in the lawsuit moved to dismiss, arguing that Etlin’s complaint was filed after the three-year statute of limitations had expired and that she had failed to state a claim.
“Defendants zealously represented Plaintiff in an attempt to achieve the best possible result for her in the face of a questionable legal posture,” the firm argued. “Plaintiff is attacking the pro bono services she received with bold and baseless allegations that, even if taken as true, cannot conceal the fact that she suffered no harm from Defendants’ representation, only benefit.”
At this morning’s hearing, Judge John Mott acknowledged that Etlin’s complaint was confusing and “hard to read” at times, but said that he saw sufficient pleadings of facts by Etlin to deny the firm’s motion to dismiss. He did dismiss one of the named attorneys as a defendant, though, finding that he hadn’t been directly involved in the events at issue.
Mott warned Etlin, however, that he was doubtful her complaint could survive a motion for summary judgment, where the bar would be higher. “I really don’t know that there’s anything to this,” he said, urging both sides to resolve the matter before it went further. He assigned the case to mediation, as is required for civil cases in Superior Court.
The firm’s attorney, Thomas Murphy of Murphy & Mood in Rockville, told Mott that the firm had made attempts to settle that Etlin rejected. Etlin said she had been interested in settling, but wanted the firm to first turn over documents relating to their handling of her case. Murphy said they had already given Etlin in excess of 5,000 pages of documents, and that the information she wanted wasn’t relevant.
Mott stopped the discussion there, saying it would be a matter to hash out during discovery. He ordered both sides to come back and update the court on the case status on April 13.
Murphy declined to comment on behalf of the firm and the individual defendants, saying Fried Frank does not comment on pending litigation. Firm partner Douglas Baruch and former associate Amy Day are named defendants; former associate John Modzelewski was also named in the complaint, but Mott dismissed him from the case this morning.
After the hearing, Etlin said that based on Mott’s comments, she felt she had a “steep mountain to climb, but I intend to get my boots on and climb.”