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Nexsen Pruet Adams & Kleemeier has won a reversal in a contempt proceeding against a plaintiffs law firm that displayed a doctored photo in its office showing a Nexsen attorney handing over a giant check to one of the lawyers defending the action. The Supreme Court of South Carolina determined that attorneys Eric S. Bland and Ronald L. Richter breached an agreement that their law firm had reached in a legal malpractice lawsuit that it filed against Nexsen Pruet in 2000. Reversing the lower court, the state Supreme Court decision found that Bland and Richter violated a protective order and the settlement agreement, and were in contempt for their conduct following the resolution reached with Nexsen Pruet, a Columbia, S.C.-based firm with about 165 attorneys. The decision in Ex Parte Bland, No. 26547, stems from a malpractice lawsuit against Nexsen Pruet filed by one of its former clients. Represented by Bland Richter, the former client, James Myrick, alleged that Nexsen Pruet had a conflict of interest when it represented him and a competitor in a real estate deal. During the discovery phase of the malpractice action, Bland Richter sought several of Nexsen Pruet’s internal documents, including its policy manual that outlined the law firm’s conflicts-checking procedure. Nexsen produced the documents after the parties entered a protective order, in which Bland Richter agreed to use all documents marked “confidential” for litigation purposes only. The order also prohibited Bland Richter from using the confidential documents for other litigation and required that they be returned to Nexsen Pruet upon written demand or destroyed after the case concluded. In addition, the order called for Bland Richter to pay $10,000 in damages if it violated the order. In 2002, Myrick settled the malpractice action. Part of the settlement agreement called for Bland Richter to return or destroy all confidential documents. Following the Myrick case, Bland Richter represented another former client of Nexsen Pruet, Frank Robertson, in a malpractice action. The Robertson case eventually yielded a $5.5 million jury verdict against Nexsen Pruet for its handling of a patent for a nut-cracking device. During the discovery of the Robertson case, Bland Richter realized that it still had the full policy manual from the Myrick case, according to the Sept. 22 decision. The firm notified Nexsen Pruet but subsequently introduced the entire manual as an exhibit during the deposition of a Nexsen Pruet representative, the decision stated. Nexsen Pruet then filed a motion to enforce the protective order in Myrick, alleging that Bland Richter had violated the order in the course of the Robertson litigation. Arguing that Bland Richter’s conduct was calculated and deliberate, Nexsen Pruet offered a photograph that showed a display hanging in the Bland Richter offices. The photo was of Richter holding a blow-up check payable to “Bland Law Firm and Richter Law Firm” and Myrick. The amount on the check was written as “$$$$$$$ Big Money $$$$$$.” According to the decision, Bland was positioned on one side of the giant check in the photo and was shown shaking the hand of a person on the opposite side of the check whose face was super-imposed with an image of Neil C. Robinson, the Nexsen Pruet attorney whose conduct was at issue in the Myrick case. Reached by phone Tuesday, Robinson said that he felt “completely vindicated” by the Sept. 22 decision. “Certain groups of lawyers feel like they can make their own rules,” Robinson said. Bland said that the photo was a gag gift from Richter and was hanging in his office out of public view. He said the law firm planned to file a motion for reconsideration. In arguing that Bland Richter’s conduct was deliberate, Nexsen Pruet also pointed to Bland Richter’s Web site, which touted a large settlement against “one of South Carolina’s largest firms.” The Supreme Court held that Bland Richter violated the protective order and the settlement agreement when it retained the policy manual and when it introduced the manual into the Robertson case. However, the court found that the Web site and office display did not violate the confidentiality agreement. The court found that Nexsen Pruet had presented those points to the lower court to show willfulness, not as violations of the settlement agreement. As such, the Supreme Court found that those claims were not preserved for appeal. Finally, the Supreme Court found that Bland Richter’s possession of the manual demonstrated a willful intent to violate the agreement. It remanded the case to the lower court for a determination of damages, which, under the settlement called for $10,000 per violation. “My partner and I behaved appropriately,” Bland said, adding, “The lower court characterized our behavior as commendable, admirable and immediate.”

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