A jury has awarded $180,000, including punitive damages, to a former associate of Ronald A. Blumfield P.C., who claimed the firm failed to pay him origination fees promised in his employment agreement.
A jury awarded Matthew Rong $112,500 in breach of contract damages and $67,500 in punitive damages for conversion following a five-day trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Rong, who left the Blumfield firm for Messa & Associates in 2012, now practices at McDonnell & Associates in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Rong started working for Blumfield in 2010 as an unpaid intern, though he was hired as an associate several months later. When he joined, the firm agreed to pay him 50 percent of all legal fees generated from the cases he originated, a plaintiff’s pretrial memorandum said.
In July 2011, Dao Qiang Wu and Hai Ying Li retained Rong to represent them in a personal injury case. Wu had been injured that month when a driver crashed his car into a Burger King restaurant in Philadelphia, sending Wu through the wall of the building. Wu and Li retained Rong because they could communicate with him in Mandarin, according to Rong’s lawyer, Justin Groen of Messa & Associates.
When Rong left Blumfield’s firm in April 2012, he did not take the case with him. But Wu and Li chose to keep their case at Blumfield’s firm with the understanding that Rong would get half of the legal fees once the case resolved, the plaintiff’s brief said.
The Wu case settled for $750,000 in August 2014, and the legal fees were $225,000. But Rong learned about the settlement from Wu and Li, not from his former employer. Rong contacted Blumfield about receiving his origination fee, to no avail, the brief asserted.
According to the plaintiff’s memorandum, Blumfield testified that he placed half of the legal fees from the Wu case into his own 401(k).
Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s brief said, Rong took two other clients with him to Messa, and continued to abide by the fee-sharing agreements with Blumfield for those cases.
Shortly after Rong sued Blumfield, the plaintiff’s memo said, Blumfield moved to Florida. He then filed a motion to remove the case to federal court, but later agreed to have the case remanded to state court. Rong filed a Dragonetti claim against him for improper use of judicial proceedings, the plaintiff’s memo said.
Blumfield contended that there was no employment agreement with Rong, so Rong could not sue for breach of contract. In a pretrial brief, Blumfield argued that Rong refused to work on the Wu case once he left the Blumfield firm, so any obligation to pay him ceased.
“Really, to take advantage of someone in this capacity was pretty atrocious,” said Groen, Rong’s attorney. “The community and the jury felt that doing what [Blumfield] did was stealing.”
Joshua Byrne of Swartz Campbell, who represented Blumfield, did not return a call seeking comment.
Lizzy McLellan writes about the Pennsylvania legal community and the business of law at firms of all sizes. Contact her at email@example.com. On Twitter: @LizzyMcLellTLI.