By David Hricik, Mercer Law School
Ordinarily, a conflict of interest leads to disqualification, but they can lead to fee disgorgement (an attorney is supposed to be loyal, and like any other agent, is not entitled to keep a fee earned while being disloyal) and, on occasion, damages. In a case affirmed by the Ohio Court of Appeals, those damages were $32 million.
In RevoLaze LLC v. Dentons US LLP, 2022-Ohio-1392 (Ohio App. Apr. 28, 2022), requires understanding what a “verein” is. It is a legal entity recognized under Swiss law somewhat similar to an association. A few law firms are organized this way, including Dentons.
In RevoLaze, Dentons US (part of a verein of many Dentons “entities”) had represented a patentee, RevoLaze, in an ITC proceeding and 17 related infringement suits. At the start of the matter, Revolaze received funding from a litigation funding group, and Dentons US agreed to reduce and cap its fees but had the right to a percentage of any recovery. Dentons had indicated to the litigation funding group that the recovery indicated potential damages of around a billion dollars, and so it vetted the patents and the case and after that agreed to fund the proceeding and related litigation, in phases, for up to $8 million.
But, Dentons US knew the ITC proceeding would be adverse to The Gap, and that Dentons Canada represented The Gap. Thus, if Dentons US was part of the same firm as Dentons Canada, then Dentons US’ representation of the patentee in the ITC proceeding was adverse to one of Dentons US’s clients, and it would be subject to disqualification. There was no evidence that Dentons had advised RevoLaze of the risk of disqualification or of steps to reduce the impact if it happened.
Of course, The Gap moved to disqualify, and the ITC granted that motion. By that time, Dentons US had billed a significant amount, RevoLaze was struggling, and disqualification caused it to pay an additional $1 million to get replacement counsel up to speed. The litigation funding group agreed to move up some funding to help, but RevoLaze settled the infringement cases and eventually dismissed the ITC proceeding while appeal of the disqualification order was pending there.
RevoLaze then sued Dentons, arguing the conflict had been foreseeable and that it had been damaged by, among other things, failing to obtain an ITC exclusion order and lost licensing revenue, with the total damages between $23 and $39 million.
To support breach — that disqualification had been foreseeable and so a reasonable lawyer would have either obtained informed consent or not taken the case — RevoLaze’s lawyers showed that Dentons US had been concerned about a conflict caused by the ITC proceeding with a client of a different “part” of Dentons (and so had not named that client in the ITC proceeding), it had a single conflicts database, Dentons’ own expert had written an article discussing the risk that a court would consider different “parts” of a verein to be one big law firm, and other facts
To support causation and proximate cause, RevoLaze had experts opine that but-for disqualification, the litigation funding costs would have been lower, RevoLaze would have obtained an exclusion order, and it would have obtained better settlements (i.e., better licensing and so had incurred lose profits).
The jury awarded $32 million. Then, the appellate court held the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict and the amount of damages.
This case, of course, is odd in that breach turned on whether Dentons was “one law firm” or separate firms, not on whether there was a conflict with a client. But the same logic would apply where a law firm undertakes a representation where it is foreseeable that it would be deemed to be adverse to a client, and so subject it to disqualification.
It appears from this June 2022 filing Dentons is seeking review by the Ohio Supreme Court, and it looks like on the issue of causation, so stay tuned.
Update: A reader sent a link to an interesting student-authored article on the ITC decision that explains the verein (which auto-corrects to “vermin”) structure.