In dispute over client list with former employee, Webb Law Firm of Pittsburgh loses motion for judgment

By John Severance | May 3, 2019

PITTSBURGH – A judge in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas last year ruled against a law firm that was sued by one of its former employees for breach of contract and tortious interference.

Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr. ruled in November that defendant Webb Law Firm’s motion for judgment was denied. Lutty did not provide a written opinion for his decision. The case shows few docket entries since Lutty's order.

Attorney Michael Alexander sued the Webb Law Firm for alleged breach of contract and tortious complaint after filing a complaint on April 5 of last year. In his complaint, Alexander requested a trial by jury and sought judgment against the defendant, compensatory and punitive damages, costs and any further relief the court deems proper.  

Alexander worked at the firm for five years but was terminated in April 2016. Two months later, he emailed Michael Somerhalder, the firm administrator, requesting a list of application numbers, client names, applicant names, assignee names and inventor names for all patent applications that Alexander worked on while he was with the firm, the suit says. 

Alexander says he wanted the information for another job he was applying for at Reed Smith. The list of clients was a stipulation if Alexander wanted to work at Reed Smith, he claims. Reed Smith did not return a message seeking comment.

The Webb firm denied Alexander access to those records and the plaintiff was unable to procure the job at Reed Smith, the lawsuit says.

‘’There is no language in the offer letter discussing any duty on the part of Webb to comply with the Pennsylvania rules or the USPTO rules, let along supply plaintiff with the client list he requested,’’ Webb firm lawyers said in court documents. 

"There was no statement, written or unwritten, from Webb to plaintiff indicating that Webb was obligated to or that it would give plaintiff or any other former attorney employee a list of clients he or she handled for Webb. Thus contrary to plaintiffs allegations in his complaint, there was no express contractual duty that could be breached by Webb.’’

The Webb firm also contacted the Pennsylvania Bar Association Ethics Counsel to inquire if it had an obligation under the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct to provide the list requested by plaintiff. Webb was told it did not have such an obligation, it says.

‘’The plaintiff could have provided Reed Smith with the list of client matters that he recalled working on while at Webb as long as he was not violating the attorney client privilege or otherwise prejudicing the client,’’the Webb firm said in its motion.

’Reed Smith could have accepted this best effort by the plaintiff but did not... Webb had no duty to comply with Smith’s alleged additional demands for not only the names of Webb’s clients that plaintiff worked for but also the additional patent application information, including assignees and inventor names. Webb was willing to work with plaintiff and Reed Smith if a specific, potential conflict of interest arose.’’

Alexander, who represented himself, countered.

''Judgment on the pleadings is not appropriate for Count 1 of plaintiff’s complaint because the arguments in defendant’s brief in support of motion for judgment on the pleadings are not supported by the pleadings,’’ Alexander wrote.’’

Alexander said in filings that professional conduct rules impose an ethical obligation upon Webb to produce the requested listing of client names and impose an ethical obligation plaintiff to avoid conflicts of interest based on the requested information.

‘’Pleadings establish the existence of a prospective contractual relation, the defendant’s ability and obligation to provide a requested listing of clients plaintiff did work for while employed by defendant and defendant’s understanding of the consequences of refusing to provide the requested information, no privilege or justification for defendant’s refusal to provide the information and the occasioning of actual damage,’’ Alexander said.

Alexander momentarily lost his case, when he failed to appear in court and the motion for judgment was granted in October. A month later, Lutty's order vacated that without explanation.

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Organizations in this Story

Reed Smith, Llp Webb Law Firm

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