Thursday, December 10, 2020

Alabama Supreme Court should have an easy call in reversing trial court and restoring Balch Bingham to David Roberson's $75-million fraud lawsuit

Alabama Supreme Court

Former Drummond Company vice president David Roberson has filed an appellate brief seeking to have the dismissal of Balch and Bingham from his $75-million fraud lawsuit overturned. If the Alabama Supreme Court follows its own precedent, Roberson's appeal should be successful -- and the ruling should be fairly easy to reach. 

The Roberson brief is 80 pages long and touches on a host of issues that indicate Balch Bingham should be brought back into the lawsuit to join codefendant Drummond, which had Circuit Judge Tamara Harris Johnson deny its motion to dismiss. (The full Roberson brief is embedded at the end of this post.)

The appeal, however, probably can boil down to two dispositive issues:

(1) Judge Johnson erred in failing to accept as true Roberson's factual allegation that he did not have an attorney-client relationship with Balch Bingham -- 

Johnson apparently found this allegation was conclusory and improperly pled, but that runs contrary to Alabama Supreme Court precedent, as found in a case style Ex parte Austal USA (2007). From our post on the Austal finding:

In Austal, several employees were injured while using a "Miller saw," and they alleged that Austal intentionally injured them, asserting a claim for fraud and stating, "Austal “intentionally made false statements regarding the safety of the Miller Saw” and that those statements were made “with the conscious and deliberate intent to injure its workmen, including plaintiffs, with the Miller Saw so that it could build its ships without having to incur the costs associated with finding a safer alternative method to perform the work. . . .” Austal fraudulently “suppressed, concealed, hid or withheld important facts from the Plaintiffs regarding the known safety hazards associated with the Miller Saw ․ and that Austal knew the tool was unsafe and had made the conscious and deliberate decision to intentionally injure its workmen with the tool so that it could build its ships without having to incur the costs associated with finding a safer alternative method to perform the work.”

Austal labeled the allegations "conclusory" and claimed the injuries were accidental, the kind for which the company was immune from tort liability. The trial court denied Austal's Motion to Dismiss, and the Alabama Supreme Court denied the company's petition for mandamus review. 

The factual allegations in Austal, particularly those involving reliance on false statements, are similar to those in the Roberson case. The Supreme Court's reasoning on denial of a Motion for Dismiss also is instructive for Roberson:

Austal urges this Court to look only to the specific factual allegations pleaded in the plaintiffs' complaint concerning how the injuries occurred and the alleged business motivations Austal had for requiring the plaintiffs to work with a dangerous tool. Those allegations, Austal contends, describe precisely the type of workplace accidental injuries for which it is immune from tort liability. . . . 

At the motion-to-dismiss stage, however, a court's ability to pick and choose which allegations of the complaint to accept as true is constrained by Alabama's broad and well settled standard for the dismissal of claims under Rule 12(b)(6). In this case, there is no question that the plaintiffs have pleaded that Austal “made the conscious and deliberate decision to intentionally injure its workmen.” That allegation -- that a company would deliberately injure multiple specific employees -- is so shocking that it invites skepticism. Moreover, we agree with Austal that a specific intent or desire to cause injury to its employees is not particularly consistent with the alleged cost-saving motivation for causing such injuries. Nevertheless, our standard of review does not permit this Court to consider the plausibility of the allegations. Rather, in considering whether a complaint is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, we must take the allegations of the complaint as true, Ussery v. Terry, 201 So. 3d 544, 546 (Ala. 2016); we do not consider “'whether the pleader will ultimately prevail but whether the pleader may possibly prevail,”' Daniel v. Moye, [Ms. 1140819, November 10, 2016] ___ So. 3d ___, ___ (Ala. 2016) (quoting Newman v. Savas, 878 So. 2d 1147, 1149 (Ala. 2003) (emphasis added)); and “[w]e construe all doubts regarding the sufficiency of the complaint in favor of the plaintiff.” Daniel, ___ So. 3d at ___. Furthermore, a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal is proper “'only when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.”' Knox v. Western World Ins. Co., 893 So. 2d 321, 322 (Ala. 2004) (quoting Nance v. Matthews, 622 So. 2d 297, 299 (Ala. 1993)).

In this case, regardless of our view on the likelihood of the plaintiffs' ultimate ability to establish the truth of the intent-to-injure allegations, or even to survive the summary-judgment stage, we cannot deny that there is at least some possibility that those allegations are true. Accordingly, the plaintiffs are entitled to at least limited discovery on the issue whether their claims are subject to the exclusivity provision of the LHWCA.5 Thus, Austal has not shown a clear legal right to a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

In Austal, the plaintiffs' allegations clearly could be labeled as conclusory; in fact, they border on mind reading. But the Alabama Supreme Court made two central findings:

(a) Despite the unlikely nature of the plaintiffs' claims, they had to be taken as true for purposes of a motion to dismiss.

(b) All doubts about the sufficiency of the complaint must be construed in favor of the plaintiff at the motion-to-dismiss stage.

Johnson failed to apply these standards in the Roberson matter, so her dismissal of Balch Bingham should be reversed on those grounds alone.

Those, however, are not the only grounds for reversal:

(2) Judge Johnson erred in finding the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act (ALSLA), and its tight statute of limitations, applied to Balch Bingham even if Roberson had no attorney-client relationship with the firm.

Again, this runs afoul of Alabama Supreme Court precedent as stated in Mississippi Valley Title Ins. Co. v. Hooper, 707 So. 2d 209 (Ala., 1997) From our post on the Mississippi Valley finding. 

Alabama law is clear that ALSLA -- and its tight statute of limitations, which could make the Roberson complaint time-barred -- applies only where there is an attorney-client relationship. Circuit Judge Tamara Harris Johnson correctly stated the law in her recent order dismissing the Balch and Bingham law firm from the Roberson case, citing a case styled Mississippi Valley Title Ins. Co. v. Hooper, 707 So. 2d 209 (Ala., 1997). Harris wrote:

The Court held further that “an attorney-client relationship is an essential element of a claim under the Legal Services Liability Act... To create an attorney-client relationship,there must be an employment contract‘either express or implied’ between an attorney and the party for whom he purports to act or someone authorized to represent such party. . . . ”

The Court in Mississippi Valley, supra, further held, The test for determining the existence of [an attorney-client] relationship is a subjective one and ‘hinges upon the client’s belief that he is consulting a lawyer in that capacity and his manifested intention is to seek professional legal advice.”

In our view, Johnson correctly stated the law in the Balch dismissal, but she applied it incorrectly -- and her order should be reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court, where it stands on appeal.

To summarize:

(1) Roberson must have had an attorney-client relationship with Balch Bingham for his complaint to fall under ALSLA and be time-barred.

(2) Roberson said in his complaint that he had no such relationship with anyone at Balch, and that must be taken as true. On top of that, the record shows no sign of an employment contract, "express or implied," between Roberson and any lawyer at Balch. Finally, there is no hint that Roberson believed he was consulting a lawyer in the capacity of being a client. In fact, the words of Roberson's complaint, which must be taken as true, show just the opposite -- that he had no such belief.

For the reasons cited above, the Alabama Supreme Court should have an easy call in reversing Johnson and bringing Balch Bingham back into the Roberson lawsuit.

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