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Nwachukwu v. Rooney

March 7, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document Nos.: 3, 17, 14




The pro se plaintiff, Christian C. Nwachukwu, seeks damages and injunctive relief from the Office of Bar Counsel ("Bar Counsel")*fn1 and various attorneys who work at the Bar Counsel (collectively the "defendants"), because the defendants dismissed the plaintiff's complaint against his former attorney. The plaintiff brings this action under 22 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), and the D.C. Human Rights Act. The plaintiff alleges that the defendants' decision to discontinue further investigation into his complaints was motivated by unlawful racial discrimination. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint and the plaintiff has responded with procedural challenges. The court denies the plaintiff's motion to strike and the court concludes that the defendants are not procedurally barred from presenting their defense. The court also grants the defendants' motion to dismiss because the defendants are entitled to absolute immunity with respect to their determinations, which are judicial in nature.


A. Factual Background

The catalyst for the instant action against the Bar Counsel and its employees is a bitter dispute between the plaintiff and the plaintiff's former attorney, John F. Karl ("Karl"), over funds recovered from a prior litigation that involved a 1994 car accident. Compl. ¶ 1. After settlement negotiations between the plaintiff and the at-fault party's insurer failed, the plaintiff hired Karl to represent him in litigation in December 1997. Id. ¶ 9. Before the trial, the plaintiff incurred medical expenses, which were paid for in part by John Hancock Life Insurance Company ("John Hancock Life"), the plaintiff's insurer. Id. ¶ 16. On March 2, 1995, the plaintiff signed a subrogation agreement with John Hancock Life, whereby the plaintiff agreed to reimburse John Hancock Life "for any and all payments issued by [John Hancock Life] for medical expenses incurred as a result of th[e October 1994 car] accident." Id. ¶¶ 4,5, Ex. A. It is undisputed that John Hancock Life paid $16,721.20 on behalf of the plaintiff. Id. ¶ 34; Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ("Defs.' Mot.") at 2.

On May 28, 1998, a jury awarded the plaintiff $45,000.00. Compl. ¶ 12. Dissatisfied with the recovery, which the plaintiff claimed "was less than all relevant expenses," the plaintiff asked Karl to reduce his attorney's fee, reimburse John Hancock Life a reduced amount, or assist the plaintiff in negotiating with John Hancock Life forgiveness or a reduction of the John Hancock Life lien. Id. ¶¶ 13, 14, 15, 16. Karl refused the requests but offered to "to give John Hancock a call." Id. ¶ 20. At the request of the plaintiff, Karl did not disburse the funds set aside for John Hancock Life. Id. ¶14. Instead, Karl retained the $16,721.20 disputed funds while the plaintiff attempted to negotiate the reduction or removal of the lien by contacting Medical Claim Services, a third party administrator for John Hancock Life. Id. ¶ 19.

According to the plaintiff, an employee at Medical Claim Services orally agreed "to close the file and hang it up on the shelf until further notice" but was unwilling to commit this agreement to writing indicating that "any letter sent from her office would only confirm the subrogation agreement and [her] obligation to honor it." Id. ¶ 31., Ex. D. The plaintiff transcribed messages that a Medical Claim Services employee allegedly left on his answering machine. These messages stated that John Hancock Life would likely audit the plaintiff's account and "request their money back" if the plaintiff continued to call them because continuous calls could arouse suspicion. Id., Ex. D. Even though the plaintiff has acknowledged that by signing the subrogation agreement he was obligated to pay back John Hancock Life, he nonetheless has vigorously argued that the employee's oral assurances gave the plaintiff a valid claim to the disputed funds and that Karl had a duty to give the disputed funds to him. Id. ¶¶ 31, 32, Ex. I.

On May 8, 2000, the plaintiff sent a letter to Karl, demanding the release of all remaining monies from the judgment, including those set aside for the John Hancock Life lien. Id. ¶ 33. Karl refused to disburse to the plaintiff the remaining funds set aside for John Hancock Life without a written waiver and stated to the plaintiff that he was ethically obligated to retain the disputed funds. Id. ¶ 29. The plaintiff filed a complaint against Karl with the Bar Counsel on July 19, 2000, for refusing to disburse the disputed funds. Id. ¶¶ 37, 38. He also sued his former attorney; that case was dismissed by this court. See Nwachukwu v. Karl, Civil Action No. 02-0469 (Mem. Op. dated Jan. 28, 2005).

In the plaintiff's letter to the D.C. Bar Association he alleged that "John Hancock Claim Services... clearly indicate[d] its intention not to seek any reimbursement of the medical expenses paid" but Karl refused to release the disputed funds. Compl., Ex. I. Responding to the complaint, the defendant John T. Rooney, Assistant Bar Counsel, wrote Karl advising him of the plaintiff's complaint and requesting a copy of the retainer agreement and the settlement disbursement sheet for the case on August 17, 2000. Id., Ex. J. On September 8, 2000, Karl responded to Mr. Rooney's requests. Karl's response, however, was addressed to Sharon Bradford, Case Manager at the Bar Counsel. Id., Ex J. Karl explained to the Bar Counsel that: (1) John Hancock Life had not released the lien; (2) Medical Claim Services was not authorized to waive or discharge the John Hancock Life lien and had stated this to the plaintiff explicitly; and (3) absent a written waiver from John Hancock Life, Karl had an ethical obligation to withhold the funds from the plaintiff.

Id., Exs. J, G, H.

On September 18, 2000, Ms. Bradford wrote the plaintiff enclosing the response from Karl. Id., Ex. J. On October 11, 2000, the plaintiff wrote Ms. Bradford challenging Karl's response and reiterating that Karl improperly withheld the funds to pay the lien. Id., Ex. K. On August 10, 2001, Mr. Rooney wrote the plaintiff advising him that the office found no "clear and convincing evidence" of ethical violations committed by Karl. Id., Ex. L. In detail, Mr. Rooney justified this determination by explaining that: (1) Karl was bound by District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct ("DCRPC"), namely, Rule 1.15 (c), to either hold the disputed funds in trust until the dispute was resolved or file an interpleader; (2) Karl was under no obligation to take steps to resolve the dispute under the DCRPC; and (3) Karl did not act improperly by asking the plaintiff to pay the contingency fee immediately upon receipt of the court award or by refusing to provide [the plaintiff] hourly billing information because the plaintiff signed a contingency agreement. Id., Ex. L. Still unsatisfied, on September 7, 2001, the plaintiff wrote Mr. Rooney a "Motion for Reconsideration and Request for Decision by the Appropriate Committee of the Bar Counsel." Id., Ex. M. In this "motion," the plaintiff charges that Mr. Rooney: (1) "was selective in his consideration of the facts while ignoring several key facts in making his decision;" (2) "failed to address the issue of the escrow account;" (3) made an arbitrary decision "not based on substantial evidence in the record;" (4) failed to cite any legal authority in his decision; and (5) "shifted the burden of proof from the attorney to the client." Id. On September 26, 2001, Mr. Rooney responded to the plaintiff's allegations and stated that the Bar Counsel stood by its initial decision to dismiss the matter. Id., Ex. N. On October 22, 2001, the plaintiff wrote Mr. Rooney again, this time calling his submission to the Bar Counsel a "Motion to Appeal Your Decision to the Appropriate Committee of the Bar Counsel." Id., Ex. O. The plaintiff argues in this "motion" that "the need to ensure that 'separation of the funds of a client from those of his lawyer' does not rest on whether or not the lawyer 'acted consistently with the Rules.'" Id.

On January 7, 2002, Joyce E. Peters, Bar Counsel, responded to the plaintiff's letter explaining that "the record gives [the Bar Counsel] no reason to suspect that [Karl] did not properly hold the funds in trust." Id., Ex. P. Ms. Peters also provided the plaintiff with the contact information for Joanne Doddy Fort, Chair of the Board on Professional Responsibility. Id. On March 12, 2002, the plaintiff wrote Ms. Fort challenging the Bar Counsel's decision to dismiss the investigation. Id., Ex. Q. The plaintiff also complained that the Bar Counsel recommended to Karl that he file an interpleader action in order to resolve the dispute without advising him. Id. On August 26, 2002, Ms. Everhart, Assistant Executive Attorney, responded to the plaintiff's letter, stating that the letter would be reviewed by the Chair of the Board to determine if "Bar Counsel's decision was fair and comported with Rule XI[ ]." Id., Ex. ...

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