Bowen v. Lin, Second App. Dist., Div. 6, case no. B312831, filed 6/6/22, certified for publication 6/23/22.
Fiduciary duty is not a level playing field. The essence of a fiduciary relationship is putting the interests of the other party ahead of your own. One of the incidents of the fiduciary relationship between lawyer and client is the client’s absolute right to discharge the lawyer, for a good reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all. This is sometimes difficult for lawyer’s to grasp, as the Bowen case shows.
“Victor and Calvin [Victor’s son] practiced medicine out of an Oxnard office owned by Victor and Yvonne [Victor’s wife.] The office sustained $25,000 in damages when a pipe in an adjacent office started leaking. The Lins hired Bowen as their attorney to demand that the owner of the adjacent office, Cynthia Lau, pay to rectify the water damage. After Lau rejected the settlement demands, Bowen recommended that the Lins sue. Victor and Yvonne agreed, but Calvin did not. Bowen nevertheless named him as a plaintiff in the lawsuit (the Lau case). He estimated that prosecuting the case would cost between $25,000 and $50,000. Over the next three years, the Lins paid Bowen nearly $68,000. Frustrated with ever-mounting costs, Victor told Bowen to cease all nonessential work on the Lau case while Gail [Victor’s daughter], a licensed attorney, tried to reach a settlement with Lau’s estate. Bowen replied that he would not cease work and would not grant Gail permission to settle the case as long as he was counsel of record. Gail then formally substituted in and settled the case.”
“Bowen sued Victor and Yvonne for breach of contract and quantum meruit, seeking to recover the unpaid balance of his fees. Victor and Yvonne cross-complained, alleging that Bowen breached his fiduciary duties, committed malpractice, and failed to execute a written fee agreement. Calvin joined the lawsuit as a cross-complainant.”
“Bowen then filed his own cross-complaint. His first cause of action asserted that Calvin breached his oral contract with Bowen when he stopped cooperating in the Lau case and fired Bowen as his attorney. The second, third, and fourth causes—for intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and negligent interference with prospective economic relations—asserted that Calvin and Gail encouraged their parents to stop cooperating with Bowen, fire him as their attorney, withhold payments due, and work with Gail to achieve a settlement. Bowen’s fifth cause asserted that Victor, Yvonne, and Calvin committed fraud when they induced him to provide legal services in the Lau case—all while providing minimal payments— knowing they would have Gail settle the case on the eve of trial. The sixth cause asserted that all four members of the Lin family conspired to defraud Bowen by encouraging him to work on the Lau case while knowing they would settle it themselves after
substituting him out.”
The Lins filed a SLAPP motion against Bowen’s cross-complaint. The trial court granted with respect to Gail, concluding that she engaged in protected activity and the litigation privilege (Civil Code section 47) meant that Bowen could not prevail on his cross-complaint against her. The trial court denied the motion with respect to Victor, Calvin and Yvonne, finding their communications “probably” did not come within the protection of the litigation privilege. It did not rule on whether Bowen was likely to prevail on his claims. Appeal, like flowers after a spring rain, naturally blossomed.
On appeal, Division 6 found that Victor, Calvin and Yvonne actions were “squarely protected” by the anti-SLAPP statute (Civil Code section 425.16(e)(1):“statement[s] or writing[s] made before a . . . judicial proceeding” and “written or oral statement[s] or writing[s] made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a . . . judicial body.”) “The “filing, funding, and prosecution of a civil action” are protected acts. (Rusheen v. Cohen (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1048, 1056.). Moreover, as noted above, a “client has the absolute right to change [their] attorney at any stage”, citing the venerable case of Gage v. Atwater (1902) 136 Cal. 170, 172, as well as the more recent case Taheri Law Group v. Evans (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 482, 491. “The trial court thus erred when it concluded that Bowen’s breach of contract cause of action did not arise from protected activity.
The Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion with respect to the interference causes of action, citing the very recent case of Pech v. Doniger (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 443, 462, for the proposition that advising clients to terminate an attorney’s services is protected activity. The fraud claims were also found subject to the SLAPP motion because they were based on the same protected communications activity specifically cited by the SLAPP statute.
Bowen tried to counterattack by noting that the Lins had cross-complained against him for malpractice but to no avail. The appellate court found that a malpractice claims does not chill petitioning activity but rather, the threat of a malpractice claim “encourages the attorney to
petition competently and zealously.”
Bowen’s appeal of the trial court’s granting of Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion failed for the same reasons. He attempted to distinguish Taheri by noting that the decision predated current Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, but that rule is essentially the same as its predecessor, former Rule 2-100(a), which Taheri relied on. The rule was irrelevant in any case; Gail did not represent any party when she communicated with the Lins while they were represented by Bown, and the Rule only applies when the lawyer making the communication represents a party.
The Court of Appeal upheld the granting of the SLAPP motion as to Gail and remanded the matter back to the trial court to decide the issue of whether Bowen might prevail in his causes of action against Victor, Yvonne and Calvin.
While careful not to express an opinion, in discussing the trial court’s determination of that issue on Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion, the high court said this: “the litigation privilege bars liability for “any communication (1) made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings; (2) by litigants or other participants authorized by law; (3) to achieve the objects of the litigation; and (4) that ha[s] some connection or logical relation to the action.” (Silberg v. Anderson (1990) 50 Cal.3d 205, 212.) It is “relevant to the second step in the anti-SLAPP analysis in that it may present a substantive defense [the nonmoving party] must overcome to demonstrate a probability of prevailing.” [Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299, 323.] Whether the privilege shields Gail’s actions is a question of law subject to our independent review. (Kashian v. Harriman (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 892, 913.) “Any doubt about whether the privilege applies is resolved in favor of applying it.”
So, Mr. Bowen would appear to have his work cut out for him. The important lesson for the rest of us is that clients and their causes of actions are not property and when push comes to shove, the interests of the clients always come first.