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Hiligh v. Sands

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 10, 2019

WILLIAM S. SANDS, JR., et al., Defendants.



         In 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.[1]

         I. Background

         The 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.

         Hiligh 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.

         District 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.

         Hiligh 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.

         Although 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.[2]

         II. Standard of Review

         Defendant 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).

         The 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 (D.D.C. 2002).

         III. Analysis

         A. Claim Against William S. Sands, Jr.

         Defendant 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 ...

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