A prominent law firm and its former president have dodged a claim for breach of fiduciary duty brought by a former client in an ugly battle alleging adultery and betrayal.
The Supreme Court of Mississippi, over a lone dissent, reversed on Thursday a lower court that denied summary judgment to Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz partner William Reed and the law firm. Reed was president of the firm between 1998 and 2005.
The court held that the plaintiff, Sam Seay, formerly a friend of Reed, did not show that the affair between Reed and Seay's wife affected Reed's representation of Seay in a wrongful termination case.
Seay, a former BancorpSouth Inc. executive, alleged that Reed offered to represent him when he was fired by the bank after he was diagnosed with depression. Reed and Seay had been friends since they were 8 years old. Although the parties dispute the date that Seay discovered the affair between Reed and Rebecca Seay, it was undisputed that it occurred and overlapped with the termination claim.
Once Seay discovered the affair, he confronted Reed. He also confronted his wife, videotaped the confrontation and allegedly hired a private investigator to search her computer. Seay demanded $3 million from Reed and Baker Donelson and vowed to sue if the demand wasn't met.
Seay filed suit against Reed and the law firm in May 2005. In addition to the breach of fiduciary duty, the lawsuit alleged negligent infliction of emotional distress and alienation of affection against Reed. It alleged failure to supervise and vicarious liability against the law firm.
Regarding the alleged breach of fiduciary duty, the court found that Seay's allegations could not support his claim.
"[N]o genuine issue of material fact exists on the issue of whether an adulterous affair between Reed and Rebecca constituted a breach of fiduciary duty Reed owed to Sam," Justice Michael Randolph wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Randy Pierce wrote that, based on a recent Mississippi Supreme Court precedent, the jury could properly determine whether an adulterous affair breached an attorney's duty.
The appeal did not involve Seay's other claims, according to Seay's attorney, Phillip Brookins of Walker Group in Jackson, Miss.
"I was surprised that an attorney can have sexual relations with a client's spouse and that it's not a breach of fiduciary duty," Brookins said.
Reed could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing him did not return a phone call. His practice focuses on class actions, product liability, insurance coverage and contract litigation.