The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott’s appeal of a $100,000 Dragonetti Act verdict against the firm regarding its client’s campaign finance suit against a former candidate for Commonwealth Court.
In a one-paragraph order issued last week, the Supreme Court denied Eckert Seamans’ petition for allowance of appeal in Mistick v. Mistick, in which the firm and its client, Barbara K. Mistick, were sued by Duquesne University School of Law professor and former Commonwealth Court candidate Joseph Sabino Mistick.
Sabino Mistick filed his Dragonetti action against the two defendants after he was let out of an underlying suit filed against him by his ex-wife, Barbara Mistick, in her efforts to recoup $159,000 in loans to Sabino Mistick’s failed 1993 judicial campaign, according to court documents. Eckert Seamans had represented Mistick in her suit against Sabino Mistick, filed in 2005.
After he was let out of the underlying suit, Sabino Mistick sued Mistick and Eckert Seamans for emotional distress and legal fees and expenses. In 2010, an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas jury awarded him $100,000 in damages. The trial judge denied the law firm’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and the Superior Court upheld that finding.
On appeal, Eckert Seamans argued the jury’s verdict could not stand because of a stipulation that attorney fees and costs in the case were stipulated to be $11,836.
According to court filings, the jury was given two verdict sheets in the case. The first verdict sheet had one question for the total amount of damages owed for the emotional distress and legal fees and expenses. When the jury said it was confused, the parties conferred and a second verdict sheet was given that split the two types of compensatory damages into two separate questions.
The jury filled out both verdict sheets. On the original verdict sheet, the jurors awarded Sabino Mistick $100,000 against Eckert Seamans. On the second verdict sheet, it awarded no damages for emotional distress and $100,000 for legal fees and expenses, according to court filings. Eckert Seamans argued the court should have molded the verdict to the stipulated $11,836 in legal fees and expenses Sabino Mistick incurred.
But in his November 2011 opinion outlining why Eckert Seamans’ post-trial motions were denied, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr. said the law firm failed to make a timely objection to the alleged inconsistent verdict.
"As such, this court could not, after the jury was dismissed, attempt to remedy this alleged inconsistent verdict which would have been capable of being corrected if a timely objection was made," Lutty said.
The judge further said in his opinion that it "appears clear to this court" that the jury intended to award Sabino Mistick $100,000 in damages.
Eckert Seamans further argued on appeal that Sabino Mistick could not be successful in a Dragonetti action when, according to the law firm, the underlying case was not terminated in his favor.
Lutty disagreed. According to his opinion, Mistick agreed to drop her suit against Sabino Mistick by stipulation, continuing the suit only against the campaign committee. Lutty said, in his view, that "essentially means that the loan case was ‘terminated’ or ended in [Sabino Mistick's] favor." Lutty said there was no underlying settlement or compromise and said it could not be argued the case ended in Mistick’s favor.
Lutty said Eckert Seamans didn’t provide any case law to support its argument that a termination of a case means the suit ended in the granting of summary judgment or with a verdict in favor of the party pursuing a Dragonetti action.
"This court finds that it is unreasonable to argue that [Sabino Mistick] should have been required to continue to defend what he perceived to be unnecessary and frivolous litigation in the underlying loan case and follow that matter through to either a ruling on the summary judgment [motion] or to verdict," Lutty said. "That illogical reasoning would have required [Sabino Mistick] to continue to spend time and money defending himself in the loan case simply so that he could later file a Dragonetti Act claim."
Eckert Seamans further argued the evidence didn’t support a finding that the law firm brought the underlying action "primarily for an improper purpose."
The law firm argued in its statement of matters complained of on appeal that the only argument Sabino Mistick raised on that point was that the filing of the loan case gave Mistick some leverage in her divorce case with Sabino Mistick. Eckert Seamans said that, even if that were true, gaining leverage in an ancillary lawsuit does not equate to an improper purpose for filing a suit.
Lutty said that issue wasn’t raised during the argument on the firm’s post-trial motions. He also said the court has to enforce the jury’s verdict unless the "circumstances cry out for judicial interference."
"The court has determined that these circumstances do not exist in this case," Lutty said.
William B. Mallin, Eckert Seamans’ general counsel, represented the firm on appeal. John L. Elash in Pittsburgh represented Sabino Mistick. Elash said he was not surprised by the allocatur denial given the lower courts’ rulings in the case.