By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
The Hermitage law firm of Lewis and Ristvey said a judge’s order in a request for a preliminary injunction is important for business owners, even though Senior Judge Fred P. Anthony did not give Lewis and Ristvey all that it sought.
Lewis and Ristvey in September sued former employee Carolyn E. Hartle after she set up a solo legal practice, Hartle Elder Law Practice, also of Hermitage.
Hartle improperly stole clients and solicited clients using Lewis and Ristvey resources, the suit claimed.
Hartle countersued, saying Lewis and Ristvey refused to turn over client files and interfered with her serving her clients.
In its request for preliminary injunction, Lewis and Ristvey asked that Hartle be prevented from communicating with any current or former Lewis and Ristvey clients or using any information she gained as a result of her employment. The injunction also sought to require her to list all clients she solicited for business and list all active cases she was primarily responsible for on behalf of Lewis and Ristvey.
While still employed by Lewis and Ristvey, Hartle sent out several hundred letters to current and former Lewis and Ristvey clients informing them of her solo practice and giving them the opportunity to transfer their representation to her, including clients with no active cases and those she had not dealt with previously or had little contact with, the suit said.
Hartle argued the letters were proper and that a Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Responsibility requires attorneys leaving law firms and the law firms they left to notify clients of the change.
The rule “do(es) not impose a duty to solicit those clients,” Anthony said in his ruling filed in Mercer County Nov. 28.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that conduct that adversely affects “the informed decision making” of a client is “improper.”
“This court finds that (Hartle’s) letter was improper,” Anthony said.
Hartle sent letters to Lewis and Ristvey clients she was not currently representing, and that she did not play a “principal role” in representing, he said.
The letter “implies” a client should take “swift action” and provided a transfer form, he said.
“The letter taken as a whole may have misled some clients to believe that attorney Hartle was actively representing their legal matter,” Anthony said.
Anthony, however, did not grant the specific actions Lewis and Ristvey requested because clients have a right to choose their own attorney.
Some clients went to Lewis and Ristvey to retrieve their client files and delivered them to Hartle, Anthony added, and Lewis and Ristvey did not prove that Hartle used confidential information.
He ordered that all transfer forms be invalidated, except for those Hartle already has case files for or in the cases where clients notified Lewis and Ristvey by other means that they choose to be represented by Hartle.
Hartle must supply a list of the clients she solicited by the letter.
Both sides are required to send letters to clients informing them of Hartle’s departure and the options clients have, and that the former transfer letters have been invalidated, Anthony said.
Hartle’s letter must include a statement that her previous letter was invalid.
“Nothing in this order shall prevent any Lewis and Ristvey clients from selecting plaintiff or defendants as their counsel,” the judge said.
Hartle declined to comment on the ruling.
“This was an important and significant win at this early stage of the proceedings for us, but also for all other business owners as well,” Michael Ristvey, principal of the firm, said in a written statement. “Employers trust their employees and expect them to be loyal, and to act professional and according to the law and the judge found that attorney Hartle did not act professionally nor did she follow the law.”
The other lawsuit claims, including that Hartle misappropriated confidential information, interfered with client relationship and unfairly competed, continue.