Fraidin v. Weitzman

Decision Date01 September 1991
Docket NumberNo. 1428,1428
Citation93 Md.App. 168,611 A.2d 1046
PartiesJacob FRAIDIN, et al. v. Andre R. WEITZMAN, et al. Andre R. WEITZMAN, et al. v. Lawrence D. COPPEL, et al. ,
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Nevett Steele, Jr. of Towson, for appellants, Fraidin, Pacific Mortg. and North American Credit Corp

Patrick A. O'Doherty (Amy J. Muffolett and O'Doherty, Nead & Hoffman on the brief), Baltimore, for appellants, Weitzman and Braiterman, P.A.

Andrew Jay Graham (Kathleen A. Birrane and Kram & Graham, P.A., on the brief), Baltimore, for appellees, Coppel, Gordon, Feinblatt, etc.

Joel M. Savits (David B. Stratton and Jordan, Coyne, Savits & Lopata, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellees, Weinstock and Weinberger, etc.

Argued before WILNER, C.J., and BISHOP and ALPERT, JJ.

BISHOP, Judge.

INTRODUCTION

In this opinion we dispose of two appeals that have been consolidated. The first appeal, filed by Jacob Fraidin (Fraidin) and his corporations, Pacific Mortgage & Investment Group, Ltd. and North American Credit Corporation (the Corporations), is from a judgment entered after a jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages against Fraidin and the Corporations in favor of Sheldon H. Braiterman, P.A. (Braiterman, P.A.) and Andre R. Weitzman (Weitzman), appellees.

The second appeal, filed by Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman, is from a judgment entered in favor of defendants below, appellees, Melvyn J. Weinstock (Weinstock), his law firm, Weinberger, Weinstock, Sagner, Stevan & Harris, P.A. (Stevan & Harris) and Lawrence D. Coppel (Coppel) and his law firm, Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander (Gordon, Feinblatt).

As a prerequisite to understanding the issues involved in the case sub judice, it is necessary to relate the background of the underlying case out of which this appeal arose.

On May 24, 1982, Ray Dorman (Dorman) and Margarette Dorman (Mrs. Dorman) (collectively the Dormans) hired On April 1, 1985, Weitzman started his own law firm. The Dormans executed a new Contract, dated April 10, 1985, with the same fee arrangement but appointing only Weitzman as their attorney. Fraidin and the Corporations employed Weinstock, of Stevan & Harris, to represent him in the defense of the Dormans' lawsuit. On September 23, 1985, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Dormans against Fraidin and the Corporations and awarded the Dormans $366,949.86 in compensatory and punitive damages, plus interest and costs. The present litigation involves the fee the Dormans owed Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman as a result of the litigation between the Dormans and Fraidin which was settled directly with the Dormans by Fraidin.

                Sheldon H. Braiterman (Braiterman), James D. Johnson (Johnson), and Andre R. Weitzman, of Braiterman & Johnson, P.A., to represent them in an action against Fraidin and the Corporations.   The Dormans executed a Power of Attorney and Contingent Fee Arrangement (the Contract) that provided they were to pay their attorneys  1/3 "if terminated without suit," 40 percent "if suit is filed but there is no trial," and 50 percent "if suit is tried on all amounts recovered by settlement or verdict."   The Contract further provided that the Dormans were to reimburse their attorneys for expenses advanced, including court costs
                

Braiterman & Johnson P.A. and Weitzman initiated this suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City by filing a Complaint against: the Dormans, Fraidin, the Corporations, Weinstock and Stevan & Harris, Coppel, and Gordon, Feinblatt. Count I alleged that the Dormans breached the terms of the Contract. In the alternative to Count I, Count II alleged that the Dormans were required to pay Braiterman & Johnson P.A. and Weitzman for the reasonable value of their services under the theory of quantum meruit. Count III alleged that the Dormans defrauded Braiterman & Johnson P.A. and Weitzman. Count IV alleged that Fraidin, the Corporations, Weinstock, Stevan & Harris, Coppel, and Gordon, Feinblatt tortiously interfered with the Contract. Count V alleged that all of the defendants-- Trial initially commenced in January 1990, but ended in a mistrial. After the second trial, commenced on September 18, 1990, the jury returned a verdict for Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman against the Dormans, Fraidin, and the Corporations; it returned a verdict in favor of defendants Weinstock, Stevan & Harris, Coppel, and Gordon, Feinblatt (collectively Lawyer Defendants). The jury assessed the following damages: Count I (breach of contract)--$12,500 "plus interest" in compensatory damages each to Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman; Count IV (tortious interference with contract)--$91,737.47 "plus interest" in compensatory damages each to Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman; Count V (Civil Conspiracy)--the jury determined that the Dormans, Fraidin, and the Corporations, but not the Lawyer Defendants, conspired to interfere with the Contract, but that Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman did not sustain any damages as a result of the conspiracy. The jury determined punitive damages should be assessed against Fraidin and the Corporations, but not against the Dormans. A second phase of the trial was commenced to determine the amount of punitive damages. The jury assessed punitive damages against Fraidin and the Corporations in favor of Weitzman in the amount of $2,500,000, and in favor of Sheldon Braiterman, P.A. in the amount of $500,000. Although Braiterman & Johnson P.A. is the party named as the plaintiff in the complaint, the verdict sheet indicates punitive damages were assessed in favor of "Plaintiff, Sheldon Braiterman, P.A." Possibly, there was an amendment during trial, but we find no explanation of the discrepancy in the record or the briefs. In this opinion we will refer to Braiterman, P.A.

                Fraidin, the Corporations, Weinstock, Stevan & Harris, Coppel, Gordon, Feinblatt, and the Dormans--engaged in a civil conspiracy to accomplish the breach of the Contract.   Punitive damages were sought under Counts IV and V.   The court (Noel, J.) later granted Fraidin's motion for judgment on Count II (quantum meruit).   Although it is unclear from the record what the disposition was of Count III (fraud), the parties have indicated it was dismissed
                

To say that the trial was exhaustive is an understatement. The trial lasted for 29 days, and the record extract before this Court consumes over 4,000 pages. The parties disputed much of the evidence. We relate the facts as we have garnered them from the record.

FACTS

Shortly after obtaining judgment for the Dormans in Dorman v. Fraidin, Weitzman began efforts to collect from Fraidin by filing Interrogatories in Aid of Enforcement of Judgment and a Request for Production of Documents in Aid of Execution. As a result, Weitzman obtained Fraidin's application to Atlantic Bonding Company, Inc., filed in the summer of 1985, in which Fraidin, under oath, stated combined personal and corporate assets slightly in excess of $3,000,000. The brief of Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman refers to another financial statement made by Fraidin to the Western Surety Company showing Fraidin's net worth to be $3,125,000 as of June 30, 1985. Our review of this document and the accompanying trial testimony indicates that the document showed Fraidin's net worth to be $3,158,300 as of June 30, 1985. In November 1985, settlement discussions regarding the judgment in Dorman v. Fraidin developed. These negotiations are central to the allegations of Braiterman, P.A. and Weitzman that the defendants tortiously interfered with the Contract, therefore we recount these negotiations in detail.

On November 1, 1985, Fraidin, without Weinstock, met with Weitzman and Braiterman to discuss settlement. Fraidin testified he offered to settle the underlying action for $100,000 over five years, or $60,000 payable immediately. Fraidin's post-trial motions in the underlying action were denied on November 7, 1985.

On November 12, 1985, Fraidin hired additional counsel from Gordon, Feinblatt to handle the post-judgment proceedings in Dorman v. Fraidin, and to advise him of his options in light of the judgment, including the possibility of Eventually, there was direct contact between Fraidin and the Dormans, although the parties disputed who initiated the contact. It was clear, however, that, on November 25, 1985, Dorman telephoned Weinstock's office and left a message for Fraidin with Weinstock's secretary that Dorman: "[j]ust wants his money back and he'll settle." Fraidin testified that Weinstock delivered the message to him either that day or the next, and that Fraidin called Dorman and arranged to meet with him on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1985. Dorman's deposition testimony, which was introduced at trial, indicated that Fraidin telephoned Dorman, and that it was only after this call that Dorman telephoned Weinstock's office. Fraidin denied initiating the contact. Dorman testified at his deposition that he never placed another call to Weinstock's office, and that he never spoke with any of the attorneys there, only with the secretary with whom he left the message. Weinstock testified Regardless of who initiated the contact, the uncontroverted evidence was that, on either November 25th or 26th, Fraidin and Weinstock discussed whether it was permissible for Fraidin to contact Dorman directly to discuss settlement. Weinstock advised Fraidin he could talk directly to Dorman. On November 26, 1985, Fraidin questioned Coppel about the propriety of Fraidin's negotiating directly with the Dormans. Coppel explained his understanding of the law to Fraidin: that it is permissible for the parties to a lawsuit to settle directly with each other. Coppel testified that, notwithstanding his opinion on the legality of direct settlement between Fraidin and the Dormans, he counseled Fraidin against such a settlement. In his testimony, Fraidin confirmed that Coppel gave him this...

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