ILNews

Judge denies summary judgment for law firm

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2010
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A federal judge has denied summary judgment for an Indianapolis law firm accused of failing to comply with court-ordered fee processes and charging more than necessary for its work as a receiver.

U.S. District Judge Larry J. McKinney denied Riley Bennett Egloff's motion for summary judgment Friday in Neil Lucas, individually and on behalf of Phonebillit, Inc., as shareholder v. Riley Bennett Egloff, No. 1:07-CV-534. Neil Lucas filed his suit in 2007 accusing the firm of having a conflict of interest in its role as custodian and then receiver of Phonebillit Inc. Lucas and another owner of the company were in a dispute with the third owner of Phonebillit, Steven Sann, about whether Sann owned 50 percent of the company or 41 percent. RBE took over as custodian of Phonebillit when former RBE attorney Timothy Freeman was removed in 2005.

A court later that year determined that Sann owned only 41 percent of stock.

In his suit, Lucas accused Freeman and RBE of having undisclosed conflicts of interest because Freeman had made personal cash payments to Sann's attorney in Montana for possible purchase of an undisclosed ownership interest in Sann's new entity. The suit also alleged RBE used its authority as receiver to defend Phonebillit's ability to recover damages against the firm for alleged malpractice and breach of fiduciary duties.

The suit claimed RBE sold most of the assets of Phonebillit to Sann for $5,000 after telling the other shareholders nothing would be sold to Sann. It also alleged the company lost around $135,000 in six weeks after another company took over call-center operations; RBE made unauthorized cash payments to Sann; and the law firm sold Lucas' stock in Brightpoint that was held in escrow at the suggestion of Sann, resulting in a loss of more than $75,000 because the proceeds were placed in a low-interest savings account.

Lucas also said RBE's attorney fees were excessive and undocumented, and the firm repeatedly failed to comply with a court-ordered fee submission and approval process.

RBE moved for summary judgment, arguing that Lucas asserted a claim for legal malpractice which entitled the firm to an affirmative defense based on the business judgment rule. Lucas argued that RBE's liability stemmed from its duty as an escrow agent. Judge McKinney wrote the parties' arguments based on those theories are misplaced.

"This case presents a claim against a receiver for the alleged breach of the duties it owed to one of the receivership's creditors or one with whom the receiver was in privity," wrote the judge.

Lucas didn't assert a claim for legal malpractice, nor did he present a claim against an escrow agent. Also, the business judgment rule has no place in the litigation, the judge continued, because RBE was an arm of the court as the receiver.

Judge McKinney also denied Lucas' motion to strike the firm's affirmative defenses and RBE's motion for summary judgment on those defenses because there are triable issues of fact. He also denied the firm's motion for judgment as a matter of law/involuntary dismissal.

At the Feb. 26 pre-trial hearing, the court will address whether RBE's motion in limine and request for a protective order is moot, and RBE's motion to exclude expert testimony, including specific testimony from Lucas. A jury trial has been set for March 8.
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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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