Maritrans GP, Inc. v. Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, 529 Pa. 241; 602 A.2d 1277 (Pa., 1992)
PA Underlying Legal Ethics Matter
Facts: This legal malpractice action was commenced by the Plaintiff, Maritrans GP, Inc., former clients of the Defendant law firm, due to the law firm’s representation of the Plaintiffs’ competitors, entities whose interests were found to be adverse to the interests of Plaintiffs, in matters substantially related to matters in which they had represented Plaintiffs. The Court of Common Pleas granted the Plaintiffs injunctive relief and enjoined the Defendants from representing the Plaintiffs’ competitors. The Superior Court reversed the injunction order, given that it was based on nothing more than the Defendants’ alleged violation of Pennsylvania’s Rules of Professional Conduct (1.7, 1.9) which, in and of itself, cannot be the basis for a cause of action in legal malpractice. Plaintiffs’ appealed the Superior Court’s reversal.
Issue: Did the Defendants’ conduct give rise to a claim for legal malpractice?
1) [Defendant] attorneys’ representation of subsequent clients whose interests were materially adverse to former client in matter substantially related to matters in which [they] represented the former client was an impermissible conflict of interest actionable at law, independent of any violation of the code of professional responsibility; (2) injunctive relief would lie to prevent [the] attorneys from breaching fiduciary duties toward [their] former client by representing its competitors; and (3) grant of preliminary injunction was not an abuse of discretion, given law firm’s extensive involvement in its former client’s affairs and its extensive knowledge of sensitive client information.
Lesson: The Court will intervene to prevent imminent harm to a former client by an attorney’s breach of his or her fiduciary duty, irrespective of the fact that the breach may constitute a violation of nothing more than state professional ethics guidelines.