A state court judge has tossed the civil suit attorney Nancy Raynor filed against the lawyers who sought to have her hit with a $1 million sanction over her handling of an expert in a medical malpractice case.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold New on Tuesday dismissed with prejudice the lawsuit Raynor filed in April that alleged three attorneys and two law firms were liable for wrongful use of civil proceedings, Dragonetti Act violations and abuse of process for the sanctions she claimed were pursued for vindictive purposes.
Raynor’s case captured the attention of Pennsylvania lawyers after she was hit with a $946,197 sanction in 2014 for allegedly eliciting an improper reference to smoking in a lung-cancer-related case that caused a mistrial. Those sanctions were overturned by the state Superior Court over the summer, and late last year the state Supreme Court ended a bid to have the sanctions reinstated.
In a 19-page opinion made public Wednesday morning, New said Raynor’s complaint admitted that Raynor had violated an order in the underlying trial, and so her claims had to fail.
“Even when read in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the alleged abuse in this case, the filing of a post-trial motion which, requested, in part, sanctions and/or contempt, was a legitimate use of the process,” New said. “The fact that the Messa defendants and the D’Annunzio defendants presented their request for sanctions ‘with transparent venom, bloom, innuendo and increased outrage, refreshed periodically with personal attacks on Ms. Raynor,’ does not mean the Messa defendants and the D’Annunzio defendants used the request for sanctions/contempt for an improper purpose.”
Raynor had sued Joe Messa and his firm, Messa & Associates, as well as attorneys Matthew D’Annunzio and William T. Hill and the firm Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg. Hill and D’Annunzio worked at Klehr Harrison at the time the medical malpractice case was tried, but D’Annunzio had since moved to Offit Kurman.
Philadelphia attorney Clifford Haines is representing Raynor. Haines said he plans to review the opinion with his client to make a determination about possibly appealing the ruling.
“The judge made a purely legal determination that Nancy Raynor had suffered a wrong without a remedy,” Haines said. “As a general proposition, I don’t sue unless I believe there is a legal basis, and the judge hasn’t convinced me I made a mistake.”
Fox Rothschild attorney Abraham C. Reich, who is representing Messa, said the opinion substantiated his client’s view of the case from the outset.
“In our judgment, the case should never have been filed. The sanction was issued through a legitimate court process and a court ruling, and to have that overturned would make a mockery of the underlying judicial proceedings,” he said. “Hopefully this will be the end of this matter.”
Robert Fiebach of Cozen O’Connor represents Klehr Harrison, Hill and D’Annunzio.
“We’re obviously very pleased with the decision,” Fiebach said. “I thought it was a very scholarly opinion and I think if there is an appeal, I think it will hold up very well.”
In making her claims, Raynor had contended the defendants only pressed for sanctions against her so they could recover “greater fees than those to which the attorney defendants were entitled under their contingent fee agreement with [Rosalind Sutch, the plaintiff in the underlying medical malpractice case] for the legal services rendered in the Sutch action.”
The defendants, in May, hit back against the claims, arguing that abuse of process claims do not allow lawsuits against attorneys for pursuing contempt or sanctions proceedings.
In his ruling, New sided with the defendants’ view of the law, and said that the “procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings” that fall under the Dragonetti Act do not including requesting sanctions in a post-trial motion.
“Furthermore, since a request for sanctions contained with the post-trial motion was not a ‘civil proceeding’ and since plaintiffs were not parties in the [underlying Sutch v. Roxborough Memorial Hospital case], they lack standing to prosecute the instant suit.”