Updated at 4:24 p.m.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed the dismissal of legal malpractice claims against Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and denounced the "contumacious behavior" of the lawyer who brought the case.
Wilmer represented the lawyer, James Pietrangelo II, as part of a legal challenge to the now-defunct "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Pietrangelo was one of a dozen former armed service members that the firm represented pro bono. He was a Wilmer client from 2004 to 2006, and then split off to pursue his own challenge on his own.
Pietrangelo accused Wilmer of interfering with his efforts to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to yesterday's opinion. Trial judges who handled the dispute at different times dismissed most of his claims, and a jury found for Wilmer on the remaining counts. A three-judge appellate panel yesterday affirmed the dismissal of Pietrangelo's claims.
Pietrangelo, who is listed as an inactive Ohio attorney, said today that he planned to petition the court for a rehearing. He called the opinion a "homophobic travesty of justice," saying it was indicative of homophobia that runs throughout the justice system. The opinion didn't get basic facts or basic law correct, he said, and instead focused on "ad hominem" attacks.
Wilmer was represented by Williams & Connolly of counsel Gerson Zweifach and partner Ellen Oberwetter. Zweifach and Oberwetter, along with a Wilmer representative, also could not immediately be reached.
According to the opinion, Pietrangelo said he delayed filing his Supreme Court petition to give Wilmer time to file its own petition. Pietrangelo said Wilmer agreed to alert him if it wasn't going to file a petition and then failed to do so. After he filed his petition, Wilmer filed a brief supporting his position but urged the court not to take the case. Wilmer said they opposed the petition because a stronger case challenging the policy was moving through the courts. The policy was repealed in September 2011.
Pietrangelo's 23-count complaint blamed Wilmer for his loss before the Supreme Court, among other things, according to the opinion. Trial judges dismissed all of his claims except for two related to Wilmer's purported responsibility to notify him about plans to file a Supreme Court petition. A jury found in Wilmer's favor and Pietrangelo appealed.
Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, writing for the appeals court, found that the trial judges properly dismissed Pietrangelo's claims. Pietrangelo's allegation that Wilmer's opposition to his petition stopped him from prevailing before the Supreme Court was "mere speculation," the court found.
Wilmer argued that the appeals court didn't need to address Pietrangelo's specific arguments because his contempt of the trial court's orders warranted dismissal. Blackburne-Rigsby wrote that the court respected the trial judge's decision to go to trial and would address each of his arguments, but added that the trial judges would have been within their rights to dismiss the case as a sanction.
"[A]fter demanding and receiving substantial time and attention from the trial court, Pietrangelo‘s attitude in return was one of flagrant contempt, whereby he deliberately disregarded orders of the trial court and exhibited an attitude of disrespect to the trial judge and the administration of justice," Blackburne-Rigsby wrote. "This is particularly troubling because Pietrangelo is himself an attorney."
Pietrangelo questioned why the court would delve into the issue of his behavior if it wasn't the basis for its decision and hadn't led the trial judge to dismiss the case. "It's all fluff, it's all scandal, it's all ad hominem attack," he said, denying that he disrespected the court or abused the judicial system. "Why didn't they dismiss? Because they couldn’t sustain that dismissal on the record."
Judge Catharine Easterly and Senior Judge Frank Schwelb also heard the case.