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D'Attilo v. Statewide Grievance Committee

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 31, 2018


          Argued May 4, 2018

         Procedural History

         Action seeking, inter alia, a writ of mandamus compelling further action by the defendant grievance panels in connection with the dismissal of certain grievance complaints brought by the plaintiffs against their former attorneys, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, where the court, Sheridan, J., granted the defendants' motion to dismiss and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiffs appealed. Affirmed.

          Howard Altschuler for the appellants (plaintiffs).

          Jane R. Rosenberg, solicitor general, with whom, on the brief, was George Jepsen, attorney general, for the appellees (defendants).

          Robinson, C. J., and Mullins, Sheldon, Keller and Bright, Js.


          PER CURIAM.

         The plaintiffs, Daniel Jacob D'Attilo, Cathy M. D'Attilo, and Domenic D'Attilo, [1] appeal[2] from the judgment of the trial court dismissing the present action, which was brought against the defendants, the Statewide Grievance Committee, the Fairfield Grievance Panel (Fairfield panel), and the Stamford-Norwalk Grievance Panel (Stamford panel), [3] seeking a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief in challenging their handling of the plaintiffs' grievance complaints against seven attorneys. On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that they were statutorily and classically aggrieved by certain decisions of those local panels dismissing their grievance complaints against five of those attorneys, and by certain other actions of the Statewide Grievance Committee with respect to the proceedings against the other two. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court dismissing the present action for lack of standing.

         The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. On March 21, 2003, the plaintiffs retained the law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, P.C. (Koskoff firm), to represent them in a civil action, claiming that medical malpractice during Daniel's birth had left him disabled for life. In January, 2012, after a jury had awarded the plaintiffs a verdict of $58.6 million, the plaintiffs ultimately settled their medical malpractice case for $25 million. In February, 2012, while still represented by the Koskoff firm, the plaintiffs retained the law firm of Day Pitney, LLP (Day Pitney), to advise them on numerous financial and tax issues related to the settlement. A dispute subsequently arose between the plaintiffs and their attorneys from both firms concerning the fees and expenses charged; the plaintiffs claimed that the Koskoff firm attorneys defrauded them and illegally misappropriated funds by retaining 28 percent of the $25 million settlement in violation of the 10.64 percent fee cap set by General Statutes § 52-251c, which governed their retainer agreement, as well by charging more than $600, 000 in litigation expenses for which they had no original invoices or other proof of validity. The plaintiffs further claimed that the Day Pitney attorneys committed legal malpractice when they set up a trust for Daniel in a way that caused him to have to pay them $65, 000 annually in trustee fees, potentially for decades, including by the creation of a foundation that would be funded by at least $5 million upon Daniel's death, to be controlled by the Day Pitney attorneys or their successor, who would receive ‘‘unspecified legal fees ‘forever.' '' In December, 2014, the plaintiffs brought a civil action against the Koskoff firm, Day Pitney, and seven individual attorneys at those law firms alleging conversion, a violation of § 52-251c (g), and statutory theft in violation of General Statutes § 52-564. In that action, the plaintiffs are seeking both treble damages and the complete return of all legal fees paid. That action remains pending.

         In February, 2015, the plaintiffs filed grievance complaints against five attorneys from the Koskoff firm and two attorneys from Day Pitney, alleging that those attorneys had committed numerous violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct while representing them, in particular the misappropriation of client funds. The complaints against the Koskoff firm attorneys were referred to the Fairfield panel, which, on July 17, 2015, dismissed claims against William M. Bloss, James D. Horwitz, and Joel H. Lichtenstein, but found probable cause of unethical conduct against Kathleen L. Nastri and Michael Koskoff. The complaints against the Day Pitney attorneys, Keith Bradoc Gallant and Rebecca Iannantuoni, were referred to the Stamford panel, which dismissed them on August 26, 2015.

         Because the Fairfield panel had found probable cause to believe that Koskoff and Nastri had engaged in unethical conduct, it referred those grievances to the Statewide Grievance Committee for further action. The chief disciplinary counsel offered to settle the grievances in exchange for a reprimand for failing to provide the plaintiffs with a full accounting. Following several hearings on the grievances, the Statewide Grievance Committee rejected the plaintiffs' requests for a proposed decision pursuant to General Statutes §§ 51-90g (f)[4] and 51-90h (a) and (b), [5] informing the plaintiffs that it no longer issued proposed decisions, and stating that its actions are ‘‘governed by the Practice Book rules and not the General Statutes.'' Ultimately, on November 18, 2016, the Statewide Grievance Committee issued a final decision reprimanding Nastri for failing to keep billing records and failing to explain to the plaintiffs that a particular provision in the retainer agreement drafted by Koskoff, which affected the applicability of the fee cap statute, could be subject to different interpretations. On March 3, 2017, the Statewide Grievance Committee reprimanded Koskoff for failing to keep proper records. Throughout these proceedings, the Statewide Grievance Committee denied the plaintiffs' attempts to supplement the record, and the chief disciplinary counsel refused their requests to submit certain evidence unfavorable to the Koskoff firm attorneys.

         While the grievance proceedings were pending, in February, 2016, the plaintiffs brought this action seeking a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief. In the first count of the complaint, the plaintiffs claimed that the decisions of the Fairfield panel and the Stamford panel to dismiss the grievance complaints were void as a matter of law because those local panels had failed to forward the complaints to the Statewide Grievance Committee, as required by Practice Book § 2-32 (i) (2), [6]for further review pursuant to Practice Book § 2-34A (b) (1).[7] The plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus directing the local panels to reissue their opinions, removing the dismissals, and forwarding them and the case files to the Statewide Grievance Committee. In the second count of the complaint, the plaintiffs asked the trial court to invoke its inherent authority to oversee attorney conduct, enjoin the Statewide Grievance Committee from taking any further action, and to take control of the pending grievance proceedings.

         The defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint on February 19, 2016. The trial court held oral arguments on the motion to dismiss on April 11, 2016. On July 18, 2016, the trial court issued a memorandum of decision granting the motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were neither statutorily nor classically aggrieved, and rendered judgment accordingly.[8] This appeal followed.

         On appeal, the plaintiffs contend that the trial court improperly concluded that they, as complainants in an attorney disciplinary proceeding, lack standing to seek court intervention in those proceedings. The plaintiffs claim, in particular, standing to address the Statewide Grievance Committee's deprivation of their statutory rights under § 51-90g (a), [9] which requires review of local panels' findings of lack of probable cause, and an infringement of their statutory right to a proposed decision under ยงยง 51-90g (f) and 51-90h (a) and (b). The plaintiffs further contend that the trial court improperly declined to use its inherent power to intervene in the disciplinary process, given the ...

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