A Philadelphia judge dismissed two of the three claims against Fox Rothschild raised by a condo owner who alleged the firm interfered with its sale of several units.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer granted Fox Rothschild’s summary judgment motion on plaintiff 22 Front Street’s tortious interference and slander of title claims against the firm and two of its attorneys, Robert S. Tintner and Brett A. Berman. Finding there were still issues of fact in dispute on the plaintiff’s claim for abuse of process, Glazer denied summary judgment motion on that count.
The case of 22 Front Street v. Gorodetzer stems from an underlying lawsuit Fox Rothschild filed on behalf of several homeowners in the luxury condo building who were upset 22 Front Street was billing a number of the units as "retirement" units.
The underlying suit was ultimately settled, appeals withdrawn and the sale of the condos as retirement units completed. In the meantime, 22 Front Street sued the homeowners, Fox Rothschild, Tintner and Berman for tortious interference with contractual relations, abuse of process, wrongful use of civil process and slander of title/disparagement of property. The wrongful use of civil process claim was dismissed in May 2012. The homeowners have since settled, leaving only Fox Rothschild and the partners as defendants.
Throughout the underlying litigation, 22 Front Street had written to Fox Rothschild, threatening it would file suit against the firm and its clients if they continued to interfere with the sale of the retirement units, according to the opinion.
In dismissing the claim for slander of title, Glazer said the filing of the underlying action to enjoin the sale is protected by "absolute judicial privilege." Glazer said that privilege provides absolute immunity to parties for communications issued in the regular course of judicial proceedings that are material to the relief sought.
"To assure such claims are justly resolved, it is essential that pertinent issues be aired in a manner that is unfettered by the threat of libel or slander suits," Glazer said. "Importantly, the existence of the privilege does not depend upon the motive of the defendant in making the allegedly defamatory statement. The privilege is absolute and cannot be destroyed by abuse."
Glazer noted that the privilege exists because the court has other internal sanctions for dealing with defamatory statements, such as perjury or contempt proceedings. The judge said the filing of the suit and subsequent amended pleadings and appeals were all protected by that privilege.
Glazer dealt with the other two counts through footnotes to his seven-page opinion. As to the tortious interference claim, Glazer said 22 Front Street alleged Fox Rothschild and the partners interfered with 22 Front Street’s contract with its lender, Sovereign Bank.
While the Fox Rothschild defendants argued that claim was barred by absolute judicial privilege, Glazer said it was clear from the record that the claim failed because there were no damages associated with it. Glazer said the managing member of 22 Front Street admitted a letter sent by Fox Rothschild to Sovereign did not interfere with the condo owner’s relationship with the bank. Because actual damages are a required element of a tortious interference claim, 22 Front Street failed to support that claim, Glazer said in granting the Fox Rothschild defendants’ summary judgment motion on that issue.
In a one-line footnote, Glazer said the motion for summary judgment as to abuse of process was denied "since genuine issues of material fact exist."
While the lawsuit will now continue on the one count of abuse of process, pieces of the litigation have already been appealed to the Superior Court. When the homeowners settled the instant case with 22 Front Street, they waived their attorney-client privilege and permitted 22 Front Street to obtain through discovery all information relating to the advice Fox Rothschild gave them when the firm represented the homeowners in the underlying suit.
Fox Rothschild objected to discovery of much of what it said was attorney work product that could not be turned over regardless of the waiver. Glazer agreed with most of Fox Rothschild’s objections and 22 Front Street has appealed.
George Bochetto of Bochetto & Lentz is representing the Fox Rothschild defendants in the matter. David L. Black of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein is representing 22 Front Street.
(Copies of the seven-page opinion in 22 Front Street v. Gorodetzer, PICS No. 13-1316, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •