The judge overseeing the First Judicial District’s legal malpractice case against the
attorney who represented the Philadelphia court system in its bid to find a new family courthouse location has ruled that the defendant lawyer is not entitled to receive contribution toward potential liability from his former law firm, which is also being sued by the FJD.
In an Oct. 22 memorandum and order, Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr., the western Pennsylvania trial judge specially presiding over the case in Philadelphia, sustained preliminary objections to lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt’s contribution claims.
Rotwitt sought to have Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, the firm for which he previously worked, and a co-defendant in the lawsuit, contribute toward his potential liability because both are joint tort-feasors in the case.
Rotwitt’s cross-claim was brought under the Uniform Contribution Among Tort-Feasors Act, which defines joint tort-feasors as two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to persons or property.
Rotwitt alleged that several other Obermayer attorneys were involved in providing legal services to the FJD in connection with the family court project and that he was entitled to seek contribution based on the negligence of these other attorneys who allegedly contributed to the same harm.
Wettick wrote that allegations that other attorneys at Obermayer provided legal services to the FJD and that each attorney had an independent duty to the FJD during the period of representation do not support a finding of any wrongdoing.
“These attorneys would not be liable unless, while providing legal services, they became aware of the co-development role of Attorney Rotwitt and they knew or should have known that this was information that Attorney Rotwitt had withheld from the First Judicial District,” Wettick wrote.
While the judge sustained the law firm’s preliminary objects on this matter, he did grant Rotwitt leave to amend his claim.
In the same ruling, Wettick also dismissed a breach of contract cross-claim that Rotwitt had filed against Obermayer.
The attorney was seeking compensation to which he alleged he was entitled under the Obermayer Partnership Agreement as a departing partner of the law firm.
The judge, however, wrote that the rules do not permit the filing of a cross-claim that has no relationship to the transaction or occurrence or series of transactions or occurrences upon which the underlying cause of action is based.
Wettick dismissed the breach of contract cross-claim on procedural grounds.
Finally, Wettick overruled Obermayer’s preliminary objections to Rotwitt’s claim for indemnity based on his partnership agreement with the law firm, which stated that the firm should indemnify any partner who is a party to a lawsuit.
Obermayer contends that whether Rotwitt is entitled to indemnification depends solely on the allegation in the FJD’s complaint, which should be taken as true, the court order states.
“There is no support in the law for this contention,” Wettick wrote.
“The purpose of the joinder rules is to allow claims for contribution and indemnity to be brought before the cause of action is ripe,” Wettick continued. “Thus, a single lawsuit will resolve plaintiff’s claims against the defendants and, if not moot, Mr. Rotwitt’s claims based on an indemnification agreement.”
The heart of the FJD’s case against Rotwitt and Obermayer is the allegation that Rotwitt never revealed to the FJD his dual role on the family court deal, that is, that the lawyer was also a co-developer on the project.
The FJD filed its legal malpractice claims against Rotwitt, Obermayer and Rotwitt’s Deilwydd Property Group back in November of last year.
Wettick, of Allegheny County, was brought in to oversee the case because the plaintiff is the First Judicial District, the formal title for Philadelphia’s court system, which is where the lawsuit was originally filed jointly by the FJD and Ronald Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Castille joined as a co-plaintiff because he was high court’s liaison justice during the initial stages of the family court project.
The FJD has since settled on a different location in downtown Philadelphia for a new family court facility.