A Texas court of appeals, determining that corporations do not have a right to privacy, has thrown out a $24,000 jury verdict a law firm won against a Houston attorney for allegedly appropriating the firm’s name.
The case, Doggett v. The Travis Law Firm, involves Jeffrey L. Doggett, who began working at Travis & Hammond—which later became the Travis Law Firm—in 2008.
According to the court, Doggett testified that he had an of counsel position at the law firm, and as part of the arrangement, he was allowed to use the firm’s phone number, the firm’s letterhead and the firm’s name without limitation. Gregory L. Travis, the sole shareholder of the Travis Law Firm, disputed Doggett’s version of the arrangement, testifying that Doggett’s role at the firm was limited to leasing office space and working on his own cases, that he was prohibited from using the Travis & Hammon name on cases, and that Doggett brought in and worked his own cases in his individual capacity.
Later in 2008, Doggett was hired to represent a client named Li Li, who was sued for breach of contract and negligence. Doggett testified that Li hired him in his individual capacity and did not hire Travis & Hammond. Nevertheless, Doggett sent emails to Li using the firm’s name and signed Li’s original answer to the lawsuit under the designation Travis & Hammond, according to the court.
In 2010, the trial court rendered judgment against Li. And in 2012, Li sued both Doggett and the Travis Law Firm, alleging that Doggett had committed legal malpractice and that the travis Law Firm was also liable under the theory of respondeat superior.
Travis asked Doggett to defend the firm in the malpractice litigation, but Doggett told Travis he could not do so because he was a fact witness in the case and was representing himself, and that he was concerned a conflict of interest existed, according to the court.
Doggett subsequently represented himself, and the The Travis Firm represented itself, in the malpractice suit. But on Sept. 13, 2013, one day before her scheduled deposition, Li nonsuited her claims against Doggett and The Travis Firm.
In 2014, the Travis Firm filed a lawsuit against Doggett, alleging negligence and invasion of privacy by appropriation of name or likeness. And in 2016, a jury found that Doggett had appropriated the Travis Law Firm’s name and awarded the firm $24,000 on its invasion-of-privacy claim.
Doggett appealed the award to Houston’s First Court of Appeals—arguing, among other points, that the Travis Law Firm could not recover on its invasion-of-privacy claim because Texas law does not recognize a corporation’s right to privacy.
In a May 10 decision, the First Court agreed with Doggett’s argument and threw out award against him, ordering that the Travis Firm take nothing.
“Invasion of privacy is the theory on which The Travis Law Firm tried its case and on which the jury was charged. Texas courts have not recognized a corporation’s right to privacy, and we likewise decline to do so here,” wrote Justice Russell Lloyd. “The Travis Law Firm cannot recover for invasion of privacy by appropriation of name or likeness.”
Doggett, a Houston solo practitioner, was pleased with the First Court’s decision. “It was definitely an interesting case,” he said. “I’m very satisfied with the court of appeals opinion.”
Travis, who closed The Travis Law Firm after he was elected to the Houston City Council in 2015 and now works at Hoover Slovacek, said he will likely appeal the decision.
“We think that is bad law,” Travis said. “We believe this opens up anybody to claim they work for a firm when they don’t.”
“If that starts happening, people will believe they are hiring firms when they’re hiring contract lawyers,” he said.