Raj Abhyanker, founder of LegalForce (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)
SAN FRANCISCO — After years of scorched-earth litigation, serial entrepreneur Raj Abhyanker has been accused of fabricating key documents in his case against a company he claims stole his idea. Now, his lawyers want out—and he doesn’t want to let them go.
The lawyer-entrepreneur is waging a bitter trade secrets and trademark battle with social-media startup Nextdoor.com. Abhyanker’s four attorneys—all affiliated with his virtual law firm, LegalForce RAPC—took the rare step of moving to withdraw as counsel this month saying they are compelled to by their obligations under the California Rules of Professional Conduct.
They haven’t spelled out precisely why they believe they must withdraw, but their motion follows allegations that Abhyanker manufactured several pieces of evidence and destroyed others. In court papers filed this month, Nextdoor’s lawyers at Fenwick & West claim Abhyanker has deceived the court nearly every step of the way since the case began.
“Developments in this action over the last month have revealed a scam of monumental proportions,” Fenwick partner Laurence Pulgram, Nextdoor’s lead lawyer, wrote in court papers. “This sounds like hyperbole. It is not.”
In an interview, Abhyanker denied fabricating any evidence and stressed that there is no evidence to support Nextdoor’s claims. He fumed that he has been pressured in recent settlement conferences to lay down his arms for an unfair sum. By seeking to withdraw from the case, Abhyanker said, his lawyers have succumbed to pressure from Nextdoor.
“They’ve done a good job, but I feel at this point there’s some fear and harassment that’s overriding their decision to want to withdraw,” he said.
Abhyanker’s lawyers submitted their reasons for wanting to withdraw in camera, though they wrote in court papers that they came to light in the last month and a half of discovery in the case. U.S. District Judge Edward Chen will consider the motion in a closed-door hearing on July 10. Abhyanker’s lawyers proposed putting the motion before another judge so Chen, the trial judge, would not be prejudiced by the evidence presented to him.
Abhyanker’s lawyers—Bruno Tarabichi, Heather Norton, Scott Allen and Brian Orion—are solo practitioners or small-firm lawyers who use Abhyanker’s platform, LegalForce RAPC, to reach new clients. LegalForce’s website lists Orion as head of the firm’s litigation group, but Abhyanker said he has returned to his own practice. Orion, Norton and Tarabichi did not respond to requests for comment, and Allen declined to comment.
Abhyanker has gotten a lot of attention for LegalForce and other professional exploits. Trademarkia, an online search engine that allows users to sift through millions of registered trademarks before filing their own, has received coverage in The New York Times. Abhyanker has said the popular site funnels millions of dollars in trademark work to his firm.
But Abhyanker is haunted by the idea that he says got away: a neighborhood-based social network. Abhyanker claims that before he could bring his vision to the masses, Nextdoor beat him to the punch, brandishing his concept and the name he planned to use for his business. (Abhyanker later called his company Fatdoor.) Abhyanker alleges that Benchmark Capital passed his idea on to Nextdoor cofounder Nirav Tolia.
In the face of Abhyanker’s allegations, Nextdoor sued the entrepreneur in the Northern District of California in 2012, seeking to establish that it isn’t infringing Abhyanker’s marks. The startup also accuses Abhyanker of infringing its trademark and flooding the Web with domain names that are confusingly similar to Nextdoor.
Over the years, Abhyanker has also slapped Nextdoor with a suit that has since been dismissed in Santa Clara County Superior Court; two trademark challenges that are pending before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; and a patent infringement case in the Northern District. He even tried to disqualify Fenwick from the case, claiming that the firm had participated in Nextdoor’s scheme.
Abhyanker says he has pursued his case so vigorously because it touches on the very reasons he became an attorney: to help solo inventors and small companies protect their intellectual property in the face of better-funded competition.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I imagine that I would be a victim of that myself,” he said. “If I can’t protect myself, how could I legitimately protect anyone else?”
But his claims have hit snags in the Northern District. Nextdoor wrote in court papers that he has advanced at least seven different theories in the case, with claims based on four trade secrets, two trademarks and one patent. Chen dismissed a few of his counterclaims against Nextdoor with prejudice. Abhyanker dropped the rest after concerns arose in discovery.
Earlier this month, Nextdoor filed an exhibit containing what it alleges are 20 false statements Abhyanker made to the court. Some cut to the core of his case.
Abhyanker claimed that he piloted his social network in the Lorelei neighborhood of Menlo Park, the same place Nextdoor tested its service. Abhyanker claims he had sent a PowerPoint presentation to Benchmark Capital that disclosed his pilot in Lorelei. But Nextdoor now alleges that he added the term “Lorelei” to the document after the fact and that his boasts of having reached 90 percent penetration in the neighborhood are also a sham.
Nextdoor claims that Abhyanker has dragged his heels in discovery for fear of highlighting more discrepancies.
“In an effort to avoid being caught, to date Mr. Abhyanker has stubbornly refused to produce the documents in his own files that will confirm his conduct,” Pulgram wrote in court papers. “But withdrawing his claims now does not allow him to avoid producing the evidence of his own wrongs.”
Abhyanker insists that he believed in his claims until new information came to light in discovery. He said additional discovery will vindicate him. He added that Nextdoor’s long list of grievances reads like a motion for attorney fees, and suggests Nextdoor’s allegations are nothing more than grist for a fee motion.
Over the course of the case, Abhyanker’s lawyers have struggled to keep pace with Nextdoor’s well-staffed Fenwick team, he said.
“I tried to get the best counsel I can, and I think this counsel is good, but it has limitations because they are solo lawyers,” he said. “If anything, I think I should have staffed this case better.”
Abhyanker hopes that Chen will agree with him because he does not want to be deprived of his counsel at this late stage in the litigation. The case is set to go to trial in December.
But judges typically rule the other way when such motions are presented to them, said Durie Tangri partner Ragesh Tangri.
“Judges are not likely to order lawyers to stay in when they believe in good faith that they are violating the rules,” he said.
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