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Landise v. Mauro

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

June 30, 2016

SARAH LANDISE, Appellant,
v.
THOMAS MAURO, Appellee.

          Argued April 23, 2015

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division (CAB-2456-92), Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge) (Hon. William M. Jackson, Trial Judge)

          John F. Karl, Jr. for appellant.

          John Vail, with whom Ferris R. Bond and M. Azhar Khan were on the brief, for appellee.

          Eugene A. Adams, Interim Attorney General at the time the briefs were filed, with whom Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, and Donna M. Murasky, Senior Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief for amicus curiae, the District of Columbia, in support of appellee.

          BEFORE: Thompson and Beckwith, Associate Judges; and King, Senior Judge.

         JUDGMENT

         This case came to be heard on the transcript of record, the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the trial court's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

          OPINION

          CORINNE BECKWITH ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         After the second trial held in this matter, a jury sided with appellant Sarah Landise and against appellee Thomas Mauro, finding that the two had entered into a partnership to practice law in the District of Columbia, that Ms. Landise was entitled to fifty percent of the partnership's profits and losses, and that Mr. Mauro breached his fiduciary duties by converting partnership funds. Because the trial court decided that the case was sufficiently complex to merit bifurcation, the court limited the jury to the question of liability and ordered an accounting to determine the damages. Even though the court appointed a special master to conduct a final accounting of the partnership funds in June 2003, that accounting never happened. A string of conflicts and misunderstandings between the parties got in the way of the accounting, and each party blames the other for this failure. The case languished for over a decade before the trial court granted Mr. Mauro's Motion To Dismiss for Failure To Prosecute in August 2013.

         Ms. Landise makes three main arguments on appeal: first, she argues that the trial court erred in taking the calculation of damages away from the jury, contending that the judge's decision to order an accounting ran afoul both of District of Columbia partnership law and the Seventh Amendment's right to a jury trial; second, Ms. Landise attacks the constitutionality of D.C. Code § 15-703 (2012 Repl.), which is a provision that allows a defendant to require a nonresident plaintiff to post security to cover potential court costs; and, third, Ms. Landise argues that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to attribute the long delay in the accounting process to Ms. Landise's failure to prosecute her case in a diligent fashion.

         We reject Ms. Landise's first two arguments, but accept her third. In our view, the fact that the accounting never came to fruition appears to be the product of an unclear trial court order, rather than any tactical delay on Ms. Landise's part. The trial court's order appointing the master did not meet the requirements of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 53 (b), which is entitled "Order appointing master" and specifies information that such an order must include. The purpose of Rule 53 (b) is to eliminate precisely the confusion that resulted in this case. We therefore reverse the trial court's ruling and remand the matter for the trial court to appoint a special master in accordance with the requirements of that rule.

         I.

         This case began in 1992, when Sarah Landise brought suit against Thomas Mauro, alleging breach of an oral partnership agreement, conversion of partnership funds, and breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint alleged that Ms. Landise and Mr. Mauro had formed a law partnership in the District of Columbia, and the complaint requested an accounting of the partnership's assets. A jury trial was held, at which Mr. Mauro argued that there was no such partnership, and that there could be no partnership because Ms. Landise was not licensed to practice law in the District. See Landise v. Mauro (Landise I), 725 A.2d 445, 445–47 (D.C. 1998). The jury at the first trial sided with Mr. Mauro, finding that Ms. Landise and Mr. Mauro had not entered into an oral partnership agreement, and that Ms. Landise had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in the District of Columbia. Id. at 446.

         A division of this court reversed and remanded for a new trial. Id. at 446– 47. The Landise I court clarified that Ms. Landise's lack of a license to practice law in the District (Ms. Landise was licensed only in Virginia) did not preclude her claim for breach of partnership against Mr. Mauro, and the court held that- because the evidence of partnership was "overwhelming"-the jury's confusion about the legal consequences of Ms. Landise's unauthorized practice might have infected the jury's verdict. Landise I, 725 A.2d at 446–47, 454. After this court remanded for a new trial, Mr. Mauro moved to require Ms. Landise to post security costs pursuant to D.C. Code § 15-703, a little-used provision of the D.C. Code that allows a defendant to require a nonresident plaintiff to "give security for costs and charges that may be adjudged against him on the final disposition of the cause." Judge Wendell P. Gardner, Jr., directed Ms. Landise to post security for the costs and fees of the litigation, and Ms. Landise complied, depositing $3, 139.33 with the Clerk of the Superior Court in July 1999.

         A second jury trial was held, before Judge William M. Jackson, in July 2000. This time it was Mr. Mauro who requested an accounting, while Ms. Landise took the position that the amount of damages was not overly complicated and could be determined by the jury. While Ms. Landise identified eight payments totaling $444, 190.33 by Mauro & Landise clients that, she claimed, Mr. Mauro deposited into his personal bank account, Mr. Mauro argued that the alleged partnership actually had more than eighty open cases, and so any calculation of damages would be sufficiently complex to require an accounting.

         Judge Jackson agreed with Mr. Mauro about the complexity of the damages. As a result, the trial court restricted the jury's consideration to six liability questions on a Special Verdict Form. The jury found for Ms. Landise, concluding that there was a partnership, that Ms. Landise was entitled to fifty percent of profits and losses, and that Mr. Mauro had breached his fiduciary duties. Judge Jackson did not let the jury compute damages or consider punitive damages, but directed counsel to select an auditor to conduct the accounting to determine the damages. Ms. Landise continued to argue that no accounting was necessary and filed a motion for entry of final judgment, which was denied by Judge Michael L. Rankin-who had taken over the matter-on February 23, 2001. The denial was "without prejudice to the filing of such an order following an accounting."

         On June 10, 2003, Judge Rankin appointed Anita Isaacson as special master to conduct an accounting. The Order Appointing Special Master was a sparse one-page document "appoint[ing] [Ms. Isaacson] as special master to this case for the purpose of conducting a final accounting of the partnership funds"; it did not make any findings or mention the requirements of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 53, entitled "Masters."

         In 2004, after having appointed the special master, Judge Rankin granted Mr. Mauro's motion to increase the amount of the bond that Ms. Landise was required to pay as a nonresident plaintiff under D.C. Code § 15-703. Ms. Landise deposited an additional $5, 000 into the Superior Court registry and then appealed the order to this court. See Landise v. Mauro (Landise II), 927 A.2d 1026 (D.C. 2007). The Landise II court dismissed that appeal, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction over the order directing Ms. Landise to pay an additional $5, 000 because it was not a final trial court order. See id. at 1027–28. The court's opinion in Landise II acknowledged that Mr. Mauro's motion seeking an increased bond stemmed from a dispute between the parties regarding the costs and implementation of the accounting that Judge Rankin had ordered:

At some point, a dispute arose between the parties regarding the costs of the accounting. Mauro claimed that Landise was refusing to pay her share of the costs related to copying and scanning certain documents, and Landise alleged that Mauro had disregarded an agreement that the copying be done in a particular fashion. As a result of this dispute, Mauro filed a motion to increase the security for costs pursuant to D.C. Code § 15–703(b), requesting that the trial court order Landise to pay an additional $25, 000 into the court registry. In his motion, Mauro represented that "[t]he cost in this accounting process is expected to increase substantially, therefore the security must be increased." In opposing the motion, Landise argued that she should not be required to post an additional bond because she "won at trial and a money judgment will be entered into [sic] her favor." In response to Mauro's motion, the trial court ordered Landise to deposit an additional $5, 000 into the court registry as security for costs related to the accounting process. Landise complied[.]

Id. at 1028–29.

         The same issues that delayed the full accounting before Landise II continued, and the accounting that was ordered never happened. Each party blames the other for this failure: Ms. Landise argues that Mr. "Mauro took no action after the second remand to obtain the accounting he claimed he sought, " while Mr. Mauro argues that it was Ms. Landise who failed to prosecute her case. On April 4, 2013, at the request of Ms. Landise, a status conference was held before Judge Rankin. At that ...


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