E-Alert Case Updates
D.C. Court of Appeals reverses Superior Court finding that delay in accounting process was caused by Plaintiff’s failure to prosecute her case
Sarah Landise v. Thomas Mauro
Sarah Landise appealed from an Order granting Thomas Mauro’s Motion to Dismiss for Failure to Prosecute. Mr. Mauro alleged that Ms. Landise failed to take action for an accounting of partnership assets after a trial court ruled in her favor, and the Superior Court agreed. Ms. Landise’s appeal consisted of three (3) issues: (1) The trial court erred in taking the calculation of damages away from the jury; (2) D.C. Code § 15-703, allowing D.C. courts to require non-resident plaintiff’s to post bond when proceeding with an action, is unconstitutional; and (3) It was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to attribute the delay in accounting to Ms. Landise’s failure to prosecute her case diligently.
This controversy arose in 1992 when Ms. Landise brought suit against Mr. Mauro for conversion of funds in breach of an alleged oral partnership agreement for their law firm. After the first jury trial resulted in a finding for the defendant, premised on the fact that Ms. Landise was not licensed to practice law in D.C., the Court remanded the case for a new trial. Considering that the evidence of a partnership was “overwhelming,” it was concerned that the jury improperly correlated Ms. Landise’s lack of licensure to practice law with her inability to form alaw firm partnership. A second jury found in favor of Ms. Landise, and as a result, the Court appointed a special master to conduct the accounting portion of the bifurcated trial.
Ms. Landise took issue with the appointment of a special master, mainly because she only chose to pursue revenue from eight specific Mauro & Landise case files. Ms. Landise contended that the calculation of such funds was not of such a complicated nature as to require an accounting; yet, the jury found that Ms. Landise was entitled to fifty (50) percent of the partnership profits and losses. The Appellate Court agreed that calculating the dissolution dates, as well as all money flowing in and out at that time, sufficiently justified bifurcating the trial and requesting an accounting.
Ms. Landise also argued that D.C. Code § 15-703 violated her constitutional right against discrimination under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, or alternatively, the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, she alleged that requiring non-resident plaintiffs to post security, but not resident plaintiffs, is discriminatory against citizens of other states. To analyze a contended violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Court must (1) look to whether the State has in fact discriminated against the out-of-state citizen, and (2) decide whether there is a sufficient justification for such discrimination. Connecticut ex rel.Blumenthal v. Crotty, 346 F.3d 84, 94 (2d Cir. 2003). The Supreme Court has on previous occasions upheld very similar laws to D.C. Code § 15-703. See Canadian Northern Railway Co. v. Eggen, 252 U.S. 553 (1920); Ownbey v. Morgan, 256 U.S. 94 (1921). Additionally, the Appellate Court was satisfied that discouraging non-meritorious suits by non-resident plaintiffs was sufficient justification to uphold the constitutionality of the statute.
Lastly, the Court answered whether it was an abuse of discretion to attribute the delay in accounting to Ms. Landise’s failure to prosecute. This issue it answered in the affirmative.
While a dismissal for failure to prosecute “generally rests within the broad discretion of the trial judge,” Taylor v. Washington Hosp. Ctr. 407 A.2d 585, 590 (D.C. 1979) (subsequent history omitted), D.C. Courts have recognized that such dismissals are an extreme sanction and should only be granted sparingly. District of Columbia v. Serafin, 617 A.2d 516, 519 (D.C. 1992). A transcript of the 2013 hearing showed confusion from both parties as to the accounting process. Moreover, the Order Appointing Special Master did not assign any special duties to the parties, and generally, did not comply with the strictures of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 53 (the rule governing appointment of special masters.) Such strictures were put in place specifically to avoid circumstances like this, and for this reason, the Court found that the failure to pursue accounting was at no fault of Ms. Landise.
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