The First Judicial District’s legal malpractice lawsuit related to a new family courthouse has moved one step further after the Allegheny County judge specially appointed to preside in the case denied preliminary objections related to a defendant law firm’s answer in the case.
The FJD is suing the law firm and ex-Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel partner Jeffrey B. Rotwitt on allegations that Rotwitt committed legal malpractice, fraud and civil conspiracy for allegedly failing to disclose that after he already was the FJD’s tenant representative on the family courthouse deal he got on the other side of the deal by agreeing to split development fees with the first proposed developer on the project.
The FJD alleges Rotwitt induced court leaders to enter agreements to provide interim funding to Rotwitt’s co-developer, pay a tenant representative fee to Obermayer Rebmann, pay the developer’s fees and pay the project architect.
Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., in orders docketed Monday, denied the FJD’s preliminary objections to Obermayer Rebmann’s answer.
If Wettick had sustained the FJD’s objections, then an allegation by the FJD that Rotwitt had informed Obermayer Rebmann attorneys Warren Ayres, Hugh Sutherland, John Ryan and Michael Weinstein in a November 14, 2007, email of the structure of the transaction would have become a binding admission.
According to the FJD’s complaint, Rotwitt wrote that there would be a developer fee paid to an entity controlled by him and former developer Donald W. Pulver and there would be a “large, but very fair” tenant representative fee.
“ORM&H will also, if I get my way, be the law firm that structures all this and does all the zoning and land development work for legal fees in addition to the tenant rep fee for the real estate and lobbying work I’ve basically already completed,” Rotwitt said in the email, according to court papers.
According to the FJD’s legal bills, Obermayer Rebmann ended up doing zoning and land development work for the FJD on the deal.
If Wettick had granted the FJD’s preliminary objections, then it also would have been deemed admitted that Rotwitt “turned his attention” to securing state funding for the courthouse at the site originally controlled by Pulver.
The FJD had argued that Obermayer Rebmann’s answer was an insufficiently specific pleading.
Wettick also denied preliminary objections by Obermayer Rebmann, which, if they have been granted, would have led to over 80 of Obermayer Rebmann’s “new matter” contentions being deemed admitted.
Among those contentions, Obermayer Rebmann said that providing developer services was not a service “contemplated by the partnership agreement between Rotwitt” and the firm, according to court papers.
Obermayer Rebmann also claims that Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who authorized the legal malpractice lawsuit and was the liaison justice to the FJD overseeing the family court project, was not owed a duty by the law firm.
Some of the other contentions that were not made binding at this stage were that lawyers from Ballard Spahr, not Obermayer Rebmann, were responsible for recommending that the FJD “advanced interim funds” for the project before the state funding was released, and that Ballard Spahr attorneys “provided independent analysis, advice and assistance.”
Another contention that was not yet made binding at this stage was that the FJD’s acceptance of the “inherently conflicted” representation by Rotwitt is “sufficient waiver of any further alleged conflicts of interest.”
Obermayer Rebmann argued that the FJD’s reply to its new matter was improper by not admitting or denying each of the firm’s averments of facts, or stating that it did not have sufficient knowledge about the averments.
One of the FJD’s counsel, Joseph R. Podraza of Sprague & Sprague, declined comment.
One of Obermayer Rebmann’s counsel, Jeffrey B. McCarron of Swartz Campbell, did not respond to a request for comment.