This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. sec. 480A.08, § 3 (1994).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Richard J. Haefele,
Charles M. Goldstein,
John A. Meiners,
Filed August 27, 1996
Carver County District Court
File No. C5-94-1133
Richard J. Haefele, 109 Stoughton Avenue, P.O. Box 85, Chaska, MN 55318 ( Pro Se Appellant)
Kevin P. Hickey, Bassford Lockhart Truesdell & Briggs, 3550 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for Respondent)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Parker, Judge, and Randall, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant challenges the district court's denial of his motion to vacate an order dismissing respondent as a party and awarding respondent attorney fees. Respondent filed a motion to dismiss this appeal as moot and seeks an award of attorney fees on appeal. We affirm. We deny respondent's motion to dismiss. We affirm the trial court on the merits, and we award respondent an additional $200 in attorney fees for this appeal.
This lawsuit arises out of employment and other disputes between appellant Richard Haefele and defendant John Meiners, an attorney who is not a party to this appeal. Meiners was employed by appellant, who is also an attorney, until Meiners' resignation in 1993. Meiners claimed that appellant owed him compensation for legal work Meiners performed on appellant's behalf in connection with a number of real estate matters. Sometime in 1994, Meiners retained respondent Charles Goldstein as counsel to represent him in connection with his claim for reemployment compensation against appellant. In March 1994, Goldstein was successful in representing Meiners in a claim for reemployment benefits resulting from a time when Meiners worked for appellant. After his resignation but prior to retaining Goldstein, Meiners had filed attorney fees liens on a number of commercial properties owned by appellant.
Meiners and appellant also disputed the rights to a $42,500 settlement check from the Minnesota Real Estate Recovery Fund. Meiners was listed as the attorney of record for appellant in the litigation that gave rise to the settlement check, and he believed that he was entitled to a percentage of the check. While representing Meiners, Goldstein contacted the Minnesota Department of Commerce (Department) and notified it of Meiners's interest in the check. The Department indicated that it would follow its "established practice" of naming both the claimant and attorney of record as payees on the check and would mail it to Meiners, the attorney of record.
In August 1994, appellant commenced this lawsuit against Meiners and respondent Goldstein. The complaint alleged several causes of action against Goldstein, including violation of constitutional rights, slander of title, attorney misconduct, abuse of process, negligence, tortious interference with prospective contractual relationship, and conversion. Goldstein withdrew from his representation of Meiners. Instead of filing an answer under Rule 12, Goldstein filed a motion to dismiss. After a motion hearing, by order dated November 29, 1994, the district court granted Goldstein's motion and dismissed him from the action with prejudice. The district court also awarded Goldstein $500 in attorney fees.
D E C I S I O N
Appellant then brought a motion to vacate the November 29, 1994, order. After a motion hearing, the district court denied appellant's motion. On May 12, 1995, appellant and defendant Meiners reached a settlement agreement and executed a general release, in which appellant and Meiners agreed to split the approximately $43,000 jointly held in a savings account. This appeal followed. Goldstein filed a motion to dismiss the appeal as moot, and the matter was referred to this panel for consideration.
As a preliminary matter, Goldstein argues that appellant's execution of a general release of claims with Meiners renders this appeal moot.
See Luxenburg v. Can-Tex Indus.
, 257 N.W.2d 804, 807 (Minn. 1977) (generally, release of one alleged joint tortfeasor will release all others). Specifically, he contends that because appellant failed to execute a
release, Goldstein is automatically released as a joint tortfeasor.
See Gould v. Johnson
, 379 N.W.2d 643, 647 (Minn. App. 1986) (execution of
release preserves claims against joint tortfeasor),
(Minn. Mar. 14, 1986). Appellant counters that this appeal is not moot because the release did not specifically release all claims against Goldstein. We conclude the appeal is not moot. Thus, we address the merits of appellant's claims.
Merits of Appellant's Claims
This court reviews a district court's denial of a motion to vacate an order under an abuse of discretion standard.
Johnson v. Hunter
, 447 N.W.2d 871, 873 (Minn. 1989). The court order and judgment does not specify the grounds for dismissing Goldstein as a party. However, in support of his motion to dismiss, Goldstein argued that the action was barred under qualified attorney immunity and that the individual causes of action against him failed as a matter of law.
Generally, "an attorney acting within the scope of his employment as an attorney is immune from liability to third persons for actions arising out of that professional relationship."
McDonald v. Stewart
, 289 Minn. 35, 40, 182 N.W.2d 437, 440 (1970);
see also L & H Airco, Inc. v. Rapistan Corp.
, 446 N.W.2d 372, 379 (Minn. 1989) (attorney does not owe duty to client's adversary). Exceptions exist when the attorney acts fraudulently, maliciously, or otherwise commits an intentional tort.
Melrose Floor Co. v. Lechner
, 435 N.W.2d 90, 91 (Minn. App. 1989).
Appellant's complaint alleged that Goldstein maliciously and groundlessly filed liens against appellant's property.
, both Meiners and Goldstein filed affidavits stating that Meiners alone filed these liens, prior to retaining Goldstein as counsel. Appellant did not dispute these assertions. Further, at oral argument appellant's only allegation against Goldstein was that Goldstein "knew of them" when he contacted the Department of Commerce regarding the settlement check.
Appellant's complaint also alleged that Goldstein illegally intercepted and diverted a $42,500 settlement check from appellant's office to Meiners. While it is true that Goldstein contacted the Department of Commerce on Meiners' behalf, the record shows that the Department was following its "established practice" of naming both the claimant and attorney of record as payees on the check and then mailing it to the attorney of record. Thus, regardless of the address to which the check was mailed, the Department would have named both attorneys on the check. We understand appellant's irritation that as a result of Goldstein's actions, the check was mailed to Meiners' address and not to appellant's address. However, Goldstein's duty was only to Meiners. With both names on the check and with no inference, much less an allegation, that either Goldstein or Meiners attempted to conceal the check from appellant, there is no evidence of the kind of malicious conduct by Goldstein that would pierce his qualified shield of immunity as an attorney.
Appellant also argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because he contends there are genuine issues of material fact. We disagree. In his complaint, appellant asserted several causes of action against Goldstein: (1) slander of title, (2) attorney misconduct, (3) abuse of process, (4) negligence, and (5) conversion. All of these claims were based on one or both of appellant's contentions that Goldstein maliciously filed attorney liens on appellant's real estate and illegally interfered with the settlement check. Because the record shows that Meiners alone filed the liens, Goldstein's actions with respect to the settlement check were not improper. Accordingly, the district court properly denied appellant's motion to vacate the order.
Appellant also challenges the district court's award of $500 in attorney fees to Goldstein. Goldstein sought attorney fees under both Minn. Stat. § 549.21, subd. 2 (1994) (penalizing the filing of action that is frivolous or in bad faith) and Minn. R. Civ. P. 11 (penalizing filing of pleadings for improper purpose). We find the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees at trial. Thus, we affirm that award.
See Radloff v. First Am. Nat'l Bank
, 470 N.W.2d 154, 156 (Minn. App. 1991) (appellate court will not reverse district court's decision awarding or denying attorney fees absent an abuse of discretion),
(Minn. July 24, 1991).
Goldstein also requests an award of $2,500 in attorney fees for responding to this appeal, which he contends is frivolous and brought in bad faith within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 549.21. Because most of appellant's claims are based on appellant's contention that Goldstein maliciously filed attorney liens on appellant's properties, we award the additional sum of $200 in attorney fees to respondent on appeal.
Meiners had the check at the time this lawsuit was commenced. The check was deposited in an interest bearing account and later divided pursuant to a settlement agreement between appellant and Meiners.