An attorney who withdrew as counsel for two related family-owned businesses did not make false and defamatory statements in explaining his withdrawal, the Indiana Court of Appeals held.
In James Gagan, Fred Wittlinger, Jack Allen and Eugene Deutsch v. C. Joseph Yast, No. 45A05-1107-CT-377, James Gagan had claimed that C. Joseph Yast made defamatory statements in a conversation with Gagan’s son, Jamie. Yast is an attorney and was close friends with the Gagan family for nearly 30 years. Yast represented the Gagans and their various businesses in numerous lawsuits during a 20-year period. In 2006, Gagan, founder of DirectBuy, offered Yast a position as the company’s vice president and general counsel, and Yast accepted. Yast’s employment contract allowed him to work on outside projects, and Yast represented Jamie Gagan’s company ThinkTank in various litigation matters.
In 2007, Gagan and the minority shareholders in DirectBuy sold the company to Trivest, a holding company, for $550 million. Gagan and the other shareholders had taken $17 million in member merchandise money as a dividend, and Trivest challenged that withdrawal under the merger. DirectBuy’s highest ranking officers contacted Gagan to explain their concerns, believing the withdrawal was inconsistent with the company’s core values.
When Trivest and Gagan and the other sellers were unable to reach an agreement, Yast withdrew his appearance for Gagan in federal litigation, believing that representing Gagan presented a conflict of interest. Yast also determined that his conflict with Gagan created a conflict of interest in continuing to represent ThinkTank. Yast called Jamie to explain why he was withdrawing from ThinkTank litigation.
Two days later, Jamie filed a disciplinary grievance against Yast, challenging the manner in which Yast withdrew his representation. Jamie argued that Yast’s disclosure of his conflict of interest in their telephone call on April 23, 2008, was inappropriate because Yast’s purpose was to leverage his withdrawal to force Gagan to capitulate in his dispute with Trivest. The Disciplinary Commission determined that Jamie’s grievance did not raise a substantial question of misconduct and dismissed the matter on April 1, 2010.
In its opinion, the COA held that Gagan and the other sellers set forth no designated evidence demonstrating that they have suffered any reputational harm or actual damage from Yast’s statements to Jamie during the telephone call and that no evidence supported the claim that Yast abused his qualified common interest privilege. The COA concluded that the trial court properly granted Yast’s motion for summary judgment on this basis.