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Yuille v. Parnoff

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

April 9, 2019


          Argued November 13, 2018

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for, inter alia, conversion, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Fairfield where the court, Radcliffe, J., bifurcated the case as to the defendant Barbara A. Parnoff; thereafter, the matter was tried to a jury; verdict and judgment in part for the plaintiff, from which the named defendant appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          John R. Williams, for the appellant (named defendant).

          Kenneth M. Rozich, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Keller, Prescott and Pellegrino, Js.


          PRESCOTT, J.

         The defendant, Laurence V. Parnoff[1](Parnoff), appeals from the judgment rendered, following a jury trial, in favor of the plaintiff, Darcy Yuille, on the counts of Yuille's complaint alleging conversion and statutory theft. On appeal, Parnoff claims that (1) the trial court abused its discretion by ordering him to commence trial on extremely short notice, (2) the verdict in Yuille's favor on counts one and two is irreconcilably inconsistent with the verdict in Parnoff's favor on count three, and (3) the court improperly declined to submit any of the special defenses to the jury. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.[2]

         The following facts, as set forth in the prior opinions of this court in Parnoff v. Yuille, 139 Conn.App. 147, 57 A.3d 349 (2012) (Parnoff I), cert. denied, 307 Conn. 956, 59 A.3d 1192 (2013) and Parnoff v. Yuille, 163 Conn.App. 273, 136 A.3d 48 (Parnoff II), cert. denied, 321 Conn. 902, 138 A.3d 280 (2016), and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of the defendant's claims.[3]In 1998, Yuille retained Parnoff to represent her in an action against Bridgeport Hospital. Parnoff I, supra, 152. The parties' fee agreement provided for a contingent fee of 40 percent. Id. On June 29, 2004, an arbitration panel awarded Yuille $1, 096, 032.93 in damages. Id., 153. Parnoff sent an invoice to Yuille that included an attorney's fee representing 40 percent of the gross settlement proceeds. Id. Yuille objected to the fee and Parnoff subsequently brought an action against Yuille to recover the fee. Id., 154. Parnoff's action alleged breach of contract, quantum meruit and bad faith. Id., 154-55. Following a trial, the jury found in favor of Parnoff on the breach of contract counts and, thus, did not reach the quantum meruit count. Id., 157-58.

         On appeal, this court held that the parties' fee agreement exceeded the cap contained in General Statutes § 52-251c and, therefore, was unenforceable as against public policy. Id., 169, 172. This court reversed the judgment in favor of Parnoff on the breach of contract counts and ordered that those counts be dismissed on remand. Id., 173. The trial court later rendered judgment for Yuille on the quantum meruit count, which this court affirmed on appeal, concluding that an attorney ‘‘who is barred from contract recovery because of the contract's failure to comply with the fee cap statute cannot recover under the doctrine of quantum meruit.'' Parnoff II, supra, 163 Conn.App. 275, 277.

         In 2013, Yuille commenced the present action alleging that Parnoff had misappropriated funds that had been held in escrow pending resolution of the parties' fee dispute. The operative amended complaint alleged conversion, statutory theft pursuant to General Statutes § 52-564, [4] and breach of fiduciary duty. At the conclusion of the evidence, the court denied Parnoff's motion for a directed verdict. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Yuille on the counts alleging conversion and statutory theft, and for Parnoff on the count alleging breach of fiduciary duty. The court subsequently rendered judgment for Yuille on the conversion and statutory theft counts in the total amount of $1, 480, 336.37. Parnoff then filed the present appeal. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.


         Parnoff first claims that the court abused its discretion by ordering that he commence trial after allowing his attorney to withdraw, without affording him time to obtain new counsel. We disagree.

         We first set forth our standard of review. ‘‘The trial court has a responsibility to avoid unnecessary interruptions, to maintain the orderly procedure of the court docket, and to prevent any interference with the fair administration of justice. . . . In addition, matters involving judicial economy, docket management [and control of] courtroom proceedings . . . are particularly within the province of a trial court. . . . Accordingly, [a] trial court holds broad discretion in granting or denying a motion for a continuance. Appellate review of a trial court's denial of a motion for a continuance is governed by an abuse of discretion standard that, although not unreviewable, affords the trial court broad discretion in matters of continuances.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Peatie v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 112 Conn.App. 8, 12, 961 A.2d 1016 (2009).

         The following facts are necessary for the resolution of this claim. Yuille commenced this action in 2013. There was little activity in the case between December 4, 2013, when Parnoff filed his answer and special defenses, and January 26, 2017, when the court, Bellis, J., ordered that trial was to begin on January 31, 2017.[5]On January 30, 2017, Yuille filed a reply to Parnoff's special defenses. Also on January 30, 2017, counsel for Yuille filed a motion to continue the case until March 1, 2017, on the ground that he had only recently been retained by Yuille. The court denied Yuille's motion, stating: ‘‘The defendants, indeed all parties were fully aware that their case was exposed to trial on one hour's notice as their counsel at the time were all told and agreed to same when the court granted yet another continuance in a very old case. As it turned out, the parties were given [five] days notice of their trial date rather than the one hour's notice.''

         On January 30, 2017, Attorney Michael S. Lynch, on behalf of the law firm of Bai, Pollock, Blueweiss & Mulcahey, P.C. (law firm), filed a motion to withdraw the law firm's appearance as counsel for Parnoff and Barbara A. Parnoff. The basis for the motion was that ‘‘the attorney-client relationship [did] not exist in that there [was] a severe breakdown in communication between attorney and clients and the attorney is not authorized to represent or act on behalf of the clients.'' Specifically, after noting the complicated history between these parties and the disputed attorney's fees, the motion indicated that in December, 2016, Parnoff had advised in writing that the law firm was required to obtain his authorization prior to performing any further work on his file. After attending the status conference in which the matter was ordered to trial, Lynch indicated that he repeatedly requested authorization from Parnoff to work on the file; Parnoff, however, did not provide the necessary authorization. Under these circumstances, Lynch and the law firm requested permission to withdraw their appearance in this matter.

         At the hearing on the motion to withdraw on February 2, 2017, the court, Bellis, J., stated: ‘‘[B]efore I hear from either or both of the Parnoffs, I just want to point out that the case is very old, that there's been four trial dates in it, and there will not be a continuance of the trial date. I do note that . . . there was a motion for stay that was filed back in September, 2015, asking for a stay for the purposes of the Parnoff v. Yuille case to be decided as opposed to any other case, and so there was a brief stay but that was years into the case.

         ‘‘So when the case was last continued, counsel at the time on both sides were informed that I would reluctantly grant . . . that latest continuance but that when the decision was issued by the Connecticut Supreme Court, that the case would be on one hour's notice and it would . . . immediately proceed to trial because, quite frankly, I did not want to continue the case the last time.

         ‘‘So here we are. The case is on trial. It will not be continued again due to the age of the case and the many continuance requests . . . .''

         Over the course of the hearing on the motion to withdraw, Lynch reiterated what he had stated in his motion, namely, that he did not have the ability to defend Parnoff because Parnoff had not authorized him to do the work. The court questioned Parnoff regarding whether he would cooperate with counsel; Parnoff, however, did not provide a clear response to the court's questions. The court considered a letter from Parnoff to Attorney Charles Fleischmann of the law firm, dated December 14, 2016, in which Parnoff notified the law firm that it should not perform any further work for which he would be billed without his written approval. The court also considered a series of emails from Lynch to Parnoff in which Lynch notified Parnoff of the court's January 26, 2017 order setting deadlines for the filing of trial management reports and proposed stipulations of fact. Parnoff, however, had not authorized Lynch to proceed.

         At the conclusion of the hearing on the motion to withdraw, the court stated: ‘‘Well . . . I'm going to find good cause to grant the motion. I'm going to find that there is a breakdown in the relationship and communications, and I'm going to find further that it was caused, Attorney Parnoff, by your refusal to cooperate with your attorney based on the information and evidence before me, and that you put Attorney Lynch in a no-win position where he was not given-where he was attempting to do what was required to do to defend you properly, and that you-your instructions to him were to not do anything and you did not respond, so there is not any way that he can properly represent you based on all this information.''[6] Before court adjourned on February 2, 2017, Parnoff indicated that he was going to try to find an attorney to represent him during the trial but that he did not know how long it was going to take. In response, the court stated that ‘‘[i]t was your choice not to cooperate with your attorney and not to give him authorization to do what needed to be done, so because of that I'm not going to continue the case.''

         On February 3, 2017, Parnoff informed the court that he was on medication and was not practicing as a commissioner of the Superior Court. The court stated that it had previously informed all counsel that, with respect to a continuance, it would consider a current letter from a medical provider indicating that it would jeopardize Parnoff's physical or mental well-being to appear in court. Such a letter was not provided to the court. The court also noted that Parnoff had an active law license and remained a commissioner of the Superior Court.[7]

         On February 7, 2017, Barbara A. Parnoff filed a motion for a continuance in which she requested that the matter be removed from the trial list in order for her to find an attorney to represent her in the matter. The same day, Parnoff filed a motion to remove the case from the trial list to allow reasonable time for trial preparation. In his motion, Parnoff stated that he had worked on this case with Attorney Paul Pollock of the law firm, who had retired, and Fleischmann, who had not responded to his December, 2016 letter. He indicated that he first learned that this case was ordered to trial on January 26, 2017, when he was in court on an unrelated matter. Parnoff did not state in the motion, however, that he was going to find another attorney to represent him. He stated, rather, that ‘‘[n]either the undersigned nor his wife have any experience as defense attorneys or in defense litigation and both have long-standing medical conditions for which treatment is continuing . . . .'' Parnoff attached, as an exhibit to his motion, a letter from an outpatient mental health treatment coordinator indicating that Parnoff had a medical appointment scheduled for February 7, 2017.

         Prior to jury selection on February 7, 2017, the court, Radcliffe, J., considered Parnoff's motion to remove the case from the trial list. At that time, Parnoff described this motion as ‘‘a motion to get the thing off the trial list; to stop with the proceedings and . . . have [this matter] placed on a trial list in a period of time that unrepresented people who thought they were being represented for the last three or four years have an opportunity to get trial counsel.'' Judge Radcliffe initially referred both motions to Judge Bellis, as she had previously ruled on these issues. After consulting with Judge Bellis, however, Judge Radcliffe bifurcated the matter as to Barbara A. Parnoff and ordered that jury selection would begin that afternoon in the case against Parnoff. The evidence in the case against Parnoff commenced on February 14, 2017, almost two weeks after the date that Judge Bellis had set for the commencement of trial.

         In support of his argument that the trial court abused its discretion by ordering him to commence trial on extremely short notice, Parnoff points out that this was a complex case and both sides had promptly requested that the matter be continued. He contends that the case was old because of the many collateral appeals and that the prior continuance requests were appropriate. He further argues that a continuance would not have had an adverse impact upon the witnesses or the reliability of the evidence, and that he had submitted medical evidence demonstrating his inability to cope with the complexity of the matters at hand. Finally, Parnoff contends that the denial of the continuance had a devastating impact upon his ability to defend the action. Specifically, Parnoff contends that throughout all of the lawsuits and appeals over the years originating from this set ...

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