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Segreti v. Christopher

February 29, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge


Mario J. Segreti, the plaintiff in this civil lawsuit, seeks to recover compensatory and punitive damages for "injuries . . . resulting from legal services provided to [or] for the direct benefit of the [p]laintiff" by his alleged former attorney, A. Mark Christopher, the law firms of Herge, Sparks & Christopher LLP ("HSC") and Vaughn, Fincher & Sotelo PC ("VFS"), and J. Curtis Herge, one of the principals of HSC. Second Amended Complaint (the "Second Am. Compl.") ¶ 1. Currently before the Court is the defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint Pursuant to [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 12(b)(6). After carefully considering the plaintiff's second amended complaint, the defendants' motion to dismiss, and all memoranda and exhibits relating thereto,*fn1 the Court concludes that it must deny the defendants' motion for the reasons that follow.

I. Background

The following facts are either alleged by the plaintiff in his amended complaint or are matters of public record. "Throughout the 1990[s] until her death on March 24, 2004," Second Am. Compl. ¶ 13, Christopher, "an attorney . . . [who] is neither licensed to practice law nor maintains offices in the District of Columbia," id. ¶ 5, "prepared Marguerite Corsetti's annual tax returns," id. ¶ 13. Corsetti is the plaintiff's grandmother, and he lived with her at a property located at 5113 Western Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20016 (the "Property"), id. ¶¶ 14-15, "from approximately 1990 until her death," id. ¶ 15. Throughout this time period, Christopher worked at HSC, first as an associate and later as a partner. Id. ¶ 10.

Sometime in the early 1990s, the plaintiff and Corsetti "jointly sought legal assistance from . . . Christopher to effectuate an inter vivos transfer of title of the Property from . . . Corsetti to the [p]laintiff." Id. ¶ 16. However, "Christopher advised [the p]laintiff and . . . Corsetti not to make [an] [i]nter [v]ivos transfer during the lifetime of . . . Corsetti, but rather to arrange for the transfer to take place through [her] estate upon her death." Id. ¶ 17. Christopher did not advise the plaintiff or Corsetti that "transferring title of the Property to [the p]laintiff through an ordinary testamentary devise would not be binding on . . . Corsetti," nor did he advise them that the plaintiff's "expectancy of becoming the sole devisee of the Property under . . . Corsetti's will was not legally protected." Id. ¶ 22. "Relying solely upon the advice of . . . Christopher," the plaintiff and Corsetti decided to forego the creation of an inter vivos trust, id. ¶ 21, and the plaintiff paid HSC for Christopher's services, id. ¶¶ 19-20.

Christopher subsequently "prepared and participated in the execution of estate planning documents" for Corsetti, including, inter alia, a will and a revocable trust, in 1997. Id. ¶ 23. These instruments "devised the Property outright to the [p]laintiff upon . . . Corsetti's death." Id.

¶ 24. However, in 2004 Christopher met with Corsetti again, id. ¶ 26, after which he "participated in and procured the execution of" revised testamentary instruments, id. ¶ 28, "devis[ing] the Property to others" and "omitting the [p]laintiff entirely," id. ¶ 29. Curtis Herge, a partner at HSC, prepared these documents at Christopher's direction. Id. ¶ 27. Neither Christopher nor Herge "advised or consulted with the [p]laintiff about . . . Corsetti's revised estate plan," id. ¶ 30, and neither defendant "sought the consent of [the p]laintiff to represent . . . Corsetti in the preparation and execution" of these revised documents, id. ¶ 31.

Corsetti died on March 24, 2004. Id. ¶ 33. Following her death, "Christopher represented the [t]rustees of [Corsetti's] testamentary [t]rust . . . in their effort to remove [the p]laintiff from the Property." Id. ¶ 34. Christopher also "agreed to be an expert witness for the [t]rustees against the [p]laintiff in a civil matter in the [Superior Court for the District of Columbia (the 'Superior Court')] related to, inter alia, removing [the p]laintiff from the Property," id. ¶ 35, in which capacity he "testified . . . at a preliminary injunction hearing against the [p]laintiff," id. ¶ 36. Christopher subsequently testified at a deposition that he "remained as an expert witness" in the trustees' civil suit and "was further retained as an expert witness for the

[t]rustees" in the probate proceeding regarding Corsetti's estate. Id. ¶ 38.

On October 17, 2006, the Superior Court issued a memorandum order in the probate matter resolving, inter alia, the question of whether Corsetti "had an [oral or written] contract with [the plaintiff] to make a will leaving him her house." Defs.' Mem., Ex. 1 (Memorandum Order entered Oct. 17, 2006) (the "Super. Ct. Order") at 1. After hearing from numerous witnesses including the plaintiff, the Superior Court found as a factual matter that "the evidence in th[e] case [wa]s not sufficient to overcome the lowest burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the decedent . . . and the plaintiff . . . had an implied contract for services, so there c[ould not have] be[en] an oral contract to make a will." Id. ¶ 69. Rather, the Superior Court found it "more credible that the nature of the 'deal' [between Corsetti and the plaintiff] was in the nature of a mutual understanding . . . between a grandmother and a grandson whereby he lived in her house, helped her out[,] and she helped him." Id. ¶ 75.

Having failed in his attempt to convince the Superior Court that Corsetti had contracted to devise her house to him, the plaintiff filed his original complaint in this Court on February 8, 2007. He filed amended complaints on February 14, 2007, and (with prior leave from the Court) on August 1, 2007. In his second amended complaint, the plaintiff alleges that the work performed by Christopher and Herge with respect to Corsetti's revised testamentary documents and Christopher's subsequent representation of the trustees named in those documents "w[as] substantially related and materially adverse to" Christopher's prior joint representation of Corsetti and the plaintiff in 1997, id. ¶ 39, and that "Christopher's actions . . . constitute the unauthorized practice of law in the District of Columbia," id. ¶ 42. He further alleges that even if he was not technically Christopher's (and, by extension, HSC's) client in 1997, the plaintiff was "the intended third-party beneficiary" of Christopher's work for Corsetti. Id. ¶ 41.

Because "Christopher . . . neglected to . . . advise the [p]laintiff and . . . Corsetti of the need for a [contract to form a will]," the plaintiff alleges that he and Corsetti "did not proceed to enter into a [contract to form a will]," id. ¶ 47(a), and "did not proceed to consummate [an]

[i]nter [v]ivos [t]ransfer, to the ultimate detriment of the [p]laintiff," id. ¶ 47(b). Further, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants "proceeded to . . . take materially adverse positions against [the p]laintiff by counseling, directing[,] and facilitating action by . . . Corsetti" without prior approval from the plaintiff, and that Christopher compounded his wrongdoing "by acting as an expert witness in litigation against [the p]laintiff [that] was materially adverse to [his] prior legal representation of [the p]laintiff." Id. ¶ 47(c). According to the plaintiff, these allegations suffice to state claims for legal malpractice, id. ¶¶ 48-50, and breach of fiduciary duty, id. ¶¶ 61-64.*fn2

The defendants seek to dismiss the plaintiff's second amended complaint in its entirety under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. They argue that the plaintiff's lawsuit "is premised on a factual allegation that he had an agreement with [Corsetti] to transfer [the Property] to him," Defs.' Mem. at 2, and that the plaintiff is "collaterally estopped from asserting that there was ever any agreement between him and . . . Corsetti" to that effect based on the Superior Court's decision in the probate matter for Corsetti's estate, id. at 3. They contend that as a consequence of this finding by the Superior Court the plaintiff "simply cannot show a breach of duty or breach of fiduciary duty on the part of [the plaintiff] or a causal link between anything [the plaintiff] is alleged to have done and any damages." Id. In ...

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