To be in federal court, or not to be in federal court – that was the question before U.S. District Judge Richard Leon.
Whether 'tis nobler in federal court for a dispute involving the Shakespeare Theatre Company to proceed, or to take arms back to the District of Columbia Superior Court, from whence the case began.
Leon likely had less trouble grappling with the question before him than Hamlet, however. Ruling from the bench yesterday after hearing arguments, Leon ordered the theater company's lawsuit against the nonprofit that serves as its landlord to go back to Superior Court, where it was first filed.
Adding an appropriate dose of dramatic flair to close the proceedings, Leon said he would remand the case and let the parties continue their "battle" in Superior Court. The case, he said, "has all the trappings of an epic one over in the Superior Court, and I wish you well."
The theater company, in a complaint filed on June 12, claimed that the nonprofit was trying to increase its rent by 700 percent in an attempt to squeeze the company out of its building in Northwest Washington. The nonprofit countered that the theater allowed its lease to expire and, as a result, the nonprofit was no longer obligated to support it.
The nonprofit, Lansburgh Theater Inc., removed the case to federal court on June 22, prompting the theater to filed a motion a few days later to send it back to Superior Court. During oral arguments yesterday, Lansburgh attorney Patrick Connor of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius said the case turned on interpreting federal tax law as it related to charitable institutions, making the federal court an appropriate venue.
Lead counsel for the theater, Arnold & Porter's Randall Miller, said that while the Superior Court judge might have to look at federal tax laws to figure out pieces of the case, the lawsuit turned on state law claims for breach of trust, breach of fiduciary duty and other issues surrounding the relationship between the theater and the nonprofit.
Leon said that while it was a "close question," he didn't think the case involved "substantial" federal tax issues. Any federal law questions the Superior Court judge may have to deal with would "relate to the heart of the contractual dispute that's essentially at issue between the parties here," he said.
Miller, in a phone interview today, said he was grateful for the ruling and was looking forward to "getting back on an accelerated track at the D.C. Superior Court so we can get a quick judicial review." Connor could not immediately be reached for comment today.
All the world was a stage to William Shakespeare, but Superior Court will have to suffice for this drama.