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Mawalla v. Hoffman

August 8, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge


This case involves a malpractice action by a former client against his immigration attorneys. Defendants have moved to dismiss. The Court held a hearing on this motion on July 31, 2008. Upon consideration of the motion, the response and reply thereto, the arguments presented at oral argument, and the applicable law, the Court finds that Plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and therefore Defendant's Motion is GRANTED.

I. Background

Plaintiff Frederick Mawalla is a native of Tanzania. Compl. ¶ 1. In 2001, Mr. Mawalla was employed as a satellite engineer at Intelsat, a multi-national corporation based in Washington, D.C. Id. ¶ 2. During this time, Mr. Mawalla was a G-4 visa holder as an Intelsat employee. Id. In 2001, Intelsat agreed to sponsor employees with G-4 visas who wished to change their immigration status to legal permanent residents. Id. ¶ 3.

Intelsat notified its employees that it would pay for legal and filing fees associated with the application for permanent residency if Defendants Linda Hoffman and the law firm Freilicher & Hoffman, P.C. were retained as counsel ("Ms. Hoffman" or "Defendants"). Id. If employees wished to seek other counsel they were to pay their own legal fees. Id. Mr. Mawalla followed Intelsat's recommendation and contacted Ms. Hoffman and Freilicher & Hoffman, P.C. Id. ¶ 4.

Intelsat filed an Application for Alien Employment Certification on Mr. Mawalla's behalf, which was certified by the Department of Labor on March 18, 2002. Id. ¶ 19. On May 15, 2002, Intelsat also filed an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, form I-140 on Mr. Mawalla's behalf. Id. ¶ 20. In November 2002, Intelsat terminated Mr. Mawalla's employment pursuant to a reduction in force. Id. ¶ 5. Intelsat recognized the potential hardship this reduction could cause to its foreign employees relating to immigration procedures and agreed to reimburse employees requiring immigration assistance up to $750 towards potential legal fees. Id. ¶ 23. On December 20, 2002, Mr. Mawalla met with Ms. Hoffman to discuss options for staying in the United States after his termination from Intelsat. Ms. Hoffman advised Mr. Mawalla that since he had lost his job, he was no longer eligible for an adjustment of status to permanent resident and that his only option to remain in the United States was to change his status to a B-2 visitor visa. Id. ¶ 25. Mr. Mawalla subsequently executed a retainer agreement with Ms. Hoffman on January 23, 2003. Ms. Hoffman was "engaged to assist Mr. Mawalla in changing his status to a holder of [a] B-2 visitor visa." Id. ¶¶ 25-26.

In early 2003, Defendants filed an Application to Extend/Change Non-Immigrant Status (form I-539) and applied for a B-2 temporary visitor visa to grant Plaintiff additional time in the United States. Id. ¶ 27. Plaintiff alleges that the first Form I-539 was denied because it was submitted without Mr. Mawalla's signature and the second was denied because it was untimely. Id. The Immigration Service made a final denial of Mr. Mawalla's Form I-539 sometime in the summer of 2003. Id. Later in 2003, Plaintiff discharged Defendants as counsel and sought advice from two other immigration attorneys. Id. ¶¶ 28, 30, 32. These attorneys were also unsuccessful in changing Mr. Mawalla's immigration status. Id. ¶¶ 30, 35.

On August 20, 2007, Mr. Mawalla brought this legal malpractice action against Defendants Ms. Hoffman and her law firm Freilicher & Hoffman, P.C., alleging that Ms. Hoffman and her firm committed professional malpractice (Count I) and breached their fiduciary duty to Mr. Mawalla (Count II). As to professional malpractice, Plaintiff claims that Defendants failed to exercise the degree of care and diligence in pursuing Mr. Mawalla's immigration claims as used by attorneys engaged in the practice of law because Defendants failed to timely file the Form I-539 with immigration authorities and failed to promptly advise Plaintiff of his available immigration-related options. Concerning the breach of fiduciary duty claim, Mr. Mawalla contends that Defendants breached this duty because they failed to timely file the aforementioned immigration paperwork, there was a conflict of interest with Intelsat, and that Defendants "sabotaged" Mr. Mawalla's immigration case in order to further the interests of Intelsat. Plaintiff seeks $1,000,000 in damages plus interest and costs for economic and emotional harm suffered as a result of the alleged malpractice. Defendants move to dismiss, arguing that Mr. Mawalla's claim is barred by the statute of limitations, is untimely, insufficiently plead, and fails to state a cause of action.

II. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint will be dismissed for failure to state a claim if "it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that will entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); Perez v. Goldin, 360 F. Supp. 2d 12, 15 (D.D.C. 2003). When considering a motion to dismiss, courts construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept the complaint's allegations as true.

Aktieselskabet AF 21 November 2001 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 16-17 (D.C. Cir. 2008); Hosey v. Jacobik, 966 F. Supp. 12, 13 (D.D.C. 1997).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff has set forth two claims. The first is for legal malpractice based on the alleged failure to advise Mr. Mawalla of his immigration options and the allegedly improper or untimely filing of certain immigration forms in early 2003 that resulted in the denial of Plaintiff's application for a B-2 visitor visa. Plaintiff's second claim is for a breach of fiduciary duty concerning the same filing of forms referenced in the malpractice count, as well as an alleged conflict of interest, and an unspecified claim that Defendants "sabotaged Mr. Mawalla's immigration case in order to further the interests of Intelsat." In this Count, Mr. Mawalla also alleges that on August 20, 2004, Defendants "knowingly engaged in conduct that made it impossible for Mr. Mawalla to adjust his status." Compl. ΒΆ 50. Construing the complaint in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff's malpractice ...

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