United States District Court, District of Columbia
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
January 1997, Wilbur Hiligh was seriously injured while
working at a Federal Express facility in Washington, D.C. He
retained a law firm, Duncan and Hopkins, P.C., to represent
him in seeking remedy. In 2000, the firm filed a civil suit
on his behalf but dismissed it after realizing it had sued
the wrong defendants. Nearly two decades later, Hiligh has
sued the firm and several of its attorneys, alleging
malpractice. One Defendant, William S. Sands, Jr., moves for
summary judgment, contending he was not Hiligh's lawyer
at the time and thus could not have committed malpractice.
The firm itself, along with one of its named partners, John
C. Duncan, III, moves to dismiss the case or, in the
alternative, asks for summary judgment, insisting that the
three-year statute of limitations for Hiligh's legal
malpractice claim elapsed long ago. Because Sands did not
have an attorney-client relationship with Hiligh during the
alleged malpractice, the Court will grant his motion.
However, the Court will deny the other Defendants' motion
because the statute of limitations was tolled while the firm
continuously represented Hiligh through 2017.
Court draws this background from the facts alleged in
Hiligh's First Amended Complaint, which the Court must
take as true at this early stage of the litigation. See,
e.g., Sissel v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human
Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (citation
omitted). In 1997, Mr. Hiligh worked at a Federal Express
facility in Northwest Washington, D.C. First Amended
Complaint (“FAC”), ECF No. 1-1, ¶¶ 3,
8. On January 31 of that year, while carrying a large package
that obscured his line of sight, Hiligh stepped into a gap
between a loading dock and an adjacent truck. Id. As
a result, he suffered permanent injury to his vascular and
sexual organs. Id. ¶¶ 9, 12. Hiligh
alleges that the accident was caused by a defective
“bridge plate, ” a device that connected the
loading dock to adjacent trucks. Id. ¶¶
7-9. The bridge plate at issue lacked certain features that
allowed it to lay flat between the dock and the trucks.
Id. ¶ 9. Hiligh fell because he incorrectly
assumed that the dock, bridge plate, and truck together
formed a flat surface with no gaps. Id.
signed a written fee agreement with Duncan and Hopkins in
January 1998. Id. ¶ 3. The firm's
representation focused in part on Hiligh's workers'
compensation claim, conducted through administrative
proceedings under D.C. law. Id. ¶¶ 13-15;
see generally D.C. Code §§ 32-1501-1545.
Additionally, Duncan and Hopkins represented Hiligh as he
contemplated a civil lawsuit arising from his injury. FAC
¶¶ 13, 16. On January 28, 2000, Duncan and Hopkins
filed suit on Hiligh's behalf in District of Columbia
Superior Court, seeking $5 million in damages stemming from
his injury. Id. ¶ 23. The suit named as
defendants Coakley & Williams Construction Company, Inc.,
the alleged general contractor for the loading dock, and
Allstate Conveyor Service, the alleged designer of the bridge
plate. Id. ¶ 24. As it turned out, Duncan and
Hopkins had sued the wrong defendants, as neither Coakley
& Williams nor Allstate were involved in the design or
manufacture of the bridge plate. Id. ¶ 27.
Hiligh's attorneys filed a notice of voluntary dismissal
with prejudice in October 2000. Id. ¶ 31.
of Columbia law imposes a three-year statute of limitations
for Hiligh's civil claim. Id. ¶ 23; see
also D.C. Code § 12-301. Because he was injured on
January 31, 1997, any claim had to be filed by January 31,
2000. FAC ¶ 23. By the time his lawyers realized that
the suit they had filed three days prior to this deadline
named the incorrect defendants, the statute of limitations
had lapsed. As a consequence, Hiligh was unable to file any
suit against the actual installer or manufacturer.
Id. ¶¶ 23, 30.
alleges that, from the time he hired Duncan and Hopkins until
it filed the suit, its attorneys failed to take appropriate
action to investigate the proper defendants. Id.
¶¶ 18-23. Specifically, he asserts that they failed
to visit the site of the accident to examine the bridge plate
or consult publicly available records to determine who
manufactured it. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Hiligh
contends that this failure violated “[t]he standard of
care for similarly situated attorneys.” Id.
¶ 21. Additionally, he insists that the appropriate
standard of care also required the attorneys, faced with an
impending statute of limitations, to serve other potential
defendants in order to preserve the possibility of naming
them in the suit through pleading amendments. Id.
¶¶ 25, 30.
Hiligh's civil suit was dismissed in 2000 and the statute
of limitations barred new claims for products liability,
Duncan and Hopkins continued to represent him in the
workers' compensation administrative proceedings.
Id. ¶¶ 15, 33. This representation lasted
years, navigating “numerous Administrative Law Judge
hearings, administrative appeals and one D.C. Court of
Appeals proceeding in the D.C. workers' compensation
system[.]” Id. ¶ 15. In April 2015, the
firm sent Hiligh a letter indicating it would not continue to
represent him. Id. ¶ 33; see also
Declaration of Wilbur Hiligh (“Hiligh Decl.”),
ECF No. 9-3, ¶ 11. On April 4, 2017, it formally moved
to cease representation in the administrative claim. Hiligh
Decl. ¶ 11.
Standard of Review
Sands moves for summary judgment, which is appropriate when
“the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as
to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A court must
accept as true the nonmovant's evidence and draw all
reasonable inferences in his favor. Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The nonmovant may
not, however, rely on “mere allegations” or
conclusory statements. Veitch v. England, 471 F.3d
124, 134 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
other Defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to state
claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) or, in
the alternative, for summary judgment. When assessing a
motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court
“assumes the truth of all well-pleaded factual
allegations in the complaint and construes reasonable
inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's
favor, but is not required to accept the plaintiff's
legal conclusions as correct.” Sissel, 760
F.3d at 4 (citation omitted). When considering a 12(b)(6)
motion, the Court “may only consider the facts alleged
in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or
incorporated by reference in the complaint, and matters about
which the Court may take judicial notice.”
Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F.Supp.2d 191, 196
Claim Against William S. Sands, Jr.
William S. Sands, Jr. has moved for summary judgment,
contending that because he did not represent Hiligh until
2014, he cannot be liable for the alleged 2000 malpractice.
In the District of Columbia, to prevail on a legal
malpractice claim, “a party must prove: (1) that there
is an attorney-client relationship; (2) that the attorney
neglected a reasonable duty; and (3) that the attorney's
negligence resulted in and was the proximate cause of a loss
to the client.” Chase v. Gilbert, 499 A.2d
1203, 1211 (D.C. 1985); see also Lewis v. United
States, 83 F.Supp.3d 198, 208 (D.D.C. 2015). “A
threshold requirement for a legal malpractice action is the
existence of an attorney-client relationship.”
Geier v. Conway, Homer & Chin-Caplan, P.C., 983