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RICHETTE v. PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD (01/21/63)

January 21, 1963

RICHETTE, APPELLANT,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD, APPELLANT.



Appeals, Nos. 290, 298, 299 and 300, Jan. T., 1962, from orders of Court of Common Pleas No. 5 of Philadelphia County, March T., 1958, No. 3369, in case of L. J. Richette v. E. W. Richardson, Samuel D. Solomon, Allen S. Olmsted, II et al. Order reversed; reargument refused February 26, 1963.

COUNSEL

James E. Beasley, Sheldon L. Albert, with them Beasley & Ornsteen, for plaintiff.

Joseph Neff Ewing, Jr., with him Leonard D. Slutz, Ivar H. Peterson, and Saul, Ewing, Remick & Saul, for defendant union.

Robert M. Landis, with him Dechert, Price & Rhoads, for defendant railroad.

Before Bell, C.j., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen and O'brien, JJ.

Author: Musmanno

[ 410 Pa. Page 8]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE MUSMANNO

The relationship between a lawyer and his client is a serious, vital and solemn one. No third person may interfere with that relationship any more than he may with propriety intervene between a doctor and

[ 410 Pa. Page 9]

    his patient. A claimant or patient may, of course, disengage himself from a professional relationship provided he has met all obligations owing to his legal or medical counselor, but if that disassociation is the result of coercion or misrepresentation practiced by others, the intervenors are answerable in law as anyone else would be liable for causing the rupture of a binding contract.

In Klauder v. Cregar, 327 Pa. 1, Justice SCHAFFER, speaking for a unanimous court, said: "... it is opportune to remark that 'a contract confers certain rights on the person with whom it is made, and not only binds the parties to it by the obligation entered into, but also imposes on all the world the duty of respecting that contractual obligation ... If one maliciously interferes in a contract between two parties, and induces one of them to break that contract to the injury of the other, the party injured can maintain an action against the wrongdoer': Caskie v. Phila. Rapid Transit Co., 321 Pa. 157, 159, 184 A. 17. An agreement between an attorney and a client on a contingent fee basis is a legal and valid contract and as such is entitled to the protection of the law: Williams v. Phila., 208 Pa. 282, 57 A. 578."

The plaintiff in this case, L. J. Richette, is an attorney in good standing at the Philadelphia Bar. E. W. Richardson, was an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, working as a station cleaner. On Aug. 13, 1957, he was injured in an accident involving the railroad company. On March 28, 1958, he engaged L. J. Richette as his attorney, signing a power of attorney to that effect. On April 3, 1958, Attorney Richette received a letter from Richardson, which stated that he was revoking his power of attorney to him. In due time, Mr. Richette concluded that Richardson had been coerced into signing the revocation of power of attorney by certain representatives of the Brotherhood of

[ 410 Pa. Page 10]

Railway & Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express & Station Employees (hereafter called the Union or Brotherhood), and of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He brought a suit in trespass against the named individuals involved, as well as the Brotherhood and the Railroad, charging them with having illegally interfered with the contract outstanding between him and Richardson, and claiming compensatory damages in the sum of $10,000, plus punitive damages in the sum of $120,000.*fn1

At the ensuing trial the jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor in the sum of $10,000 compensatory damages and $15,000 punitive damages against all defendants. Various post-trial motions were filed. The court entered judgment n.o.v. as to punitive damages and ordered a new trial on the compensatory verdict.

The case is now before us with the plaintiff asking that the verdict of the jury, as originally rendered, be restored, and the defendants asking that the order for a new trial be reversed and judgment n.o.v. be entered on the compensatory verdict.

In view of the fact that the plaintiff is the verdict winner we must review the record with respect to judgment n.o.v., in the light most favorable to him. With that kind of light illuminating the printed pages, the following facts stand out practically in bold type. As already stated, Richardson was injured on August 13, 1957, the injury being a fractured ankle. He was treated at the Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia where he was visited by Robert E. Shultz, railroad claim agent, who informed him that it would be to his best interests to deal with the railroad company in settling his case. By February, 1958, Richardson's

[ 410 Pa. Page 11]

    railroad retirement benefits were exhausted and Mr. Shultz on March 6, 1958, advanced to him $250 to provide living necessities, the amount to be credited against his ultimate settlement with the railroad company.

In the latter part of March, 1958, Richardson called on Bernard Spencer, a "protective committeeman," or ship steward of the Brotherhood, to speak about his accident and hoped-for monetary remuneration. Spencer said that he would turn Richardson's case over to Samuel D. Solomon, another protective committeeman of the Union, who would call on him the following day. Solomon failed to make the call promised by Spencer, and Richardson accordingly engaged L. J. Richette to represent him as his attorney.

The evening after engaging Richette, Solomon called at Richardson's home and, after learning of the attorney relationship, said to Richardson: "You did the wrong thing." Richardson testified to the following conversation: "He said, 'Mr. Shultz won't let you have any more money.' I said: 'I will need some money to live on. I haven't got anything. I have a wife to support. There is nothing coming in.' He said: 'You can't have any time for that lawyer. You are going to be out of a job.'"

The next day Richardson went to see Shultz in his office. Solomon was there. Richardson testified that the following conversation occurred at that time and in that place: "Q. Will you tell us what went on in Mr. Shultz's office? A. Do you mean what was said in there? Q. Yes. A. I went in there. Mr. Shultz said, 'I heard you retained a lawyer.' I told him I did. He went into the other room and then came out and said, 'We can't do anything for you as long as you have got that lawyer.' I said, 'I need something now to live on because I have not got anything.' He said, 'Is the $250 gone?' I said, 'That is done and gone.' Q. What

[ 410 Pa. Page 12]

    else did Mr. Shultz tell you?A. He walked into this other room and then came out and said he could not let me have any more money until I got shed of this lawyer. Q. This is the second 'shed'? A. I asked him how would I go about getting shed of the lawyer. In other words, what steps would I take."

Richardson then explained that Shultz gave him a typed letter and told him to go outside the office. Solomon went along with him and instructed him to copy in his own handwriting the words on the typed letter. He did this and the letter was mailed by Solomon to Richette. The letter read as follows: "I am hereby revoking my power of attorney I signed with you as I have never wanted any attorney to represent me and my claim against the penn R-R. Elford W. Richardson."

The letter was introduced as an exhibit in the case and reveals the handwriting of a person obviously a comparative stranger to writing instruments. It is also patently clear that the language in the letter was one which could hardly come from Richardson, a person of extremely limited education.

Richardson testified further that while in Shultz's office he was asked many questions and then he was handed a paper to sign. "Q. When all of this typing was completed, did Mr. Shultz or Mr. Solomon sit down and read this to you? A. No, they did not read it to me. Q. Will you tell us what happened? A. He handed it to me and told me to read it. I told him I could not read all that stuff. Q. You are not educated enough to read that stuff. A. I am not educated enough to read all that stuff. ... Q. Did you have any idea as to what it stated in that affidavit? A. No, I don't. I know I was getting shed of my lawyer on account of the pressure that was on me."

There can be no doubt that the above cited testimony, if believed, made out a prima facie case of unwarranted

[ 410 Pa. Page 13]

    interference in the business relationship between Richardson and his attorney. We have here a practically illiterate man, 58 years of age at the time, injured, unable to get around except on crutches, destitute, hoping to get funds which would assure him of food for himself and wife, being threatened that if he didn't discharge his attorney who could help him to get what he was entitled to for his injury, he would not only receive no immediate funds but he would lose his job, the only train in which he could ride on, over the bumpy tracks of an uncertain economic world.

All this unquestionably spelt out a case of coercion. Richardson's testimony was controverted, it is true, in places it was self-contradictory, but the jury passed on his credibility, it reconciled the inconsistencies in his testimony, and it concluded that the proved facts in the trial warranted a conclusion that he had been intimidated into breaking his contract with the plaintiff.

The jury was warranted in finding from the evidence presented that the named defendants coordinated, through wile, stratagem and deception to separate an attorney from his client. It could not be said, as a matter of the law, that the jury went astray when they concluded, as they must have, that Richardson did not voluntarily write a letter revoking his power of attorney to Richette. Logic, sequence of events, and palpable circumstances justify their conclusion that the railroad company representatives prepared a letter of revocation, that they employed a maneuver to have Richardson copy that letter outside the railroad company office, thinking that this would wipe away their participation in the affair; that they supplied Richardson with the paper on which he was to copy the letter of revocation; that Solomon, working with the railroad, supervised the copying, and supplied the envelope, in which he placed the letter, which he consigned to the

[ 410 Pa. Page 14]

United States mails. The jury were warranted in concluding that all the named defendants were a part of this plan and participated fully in the enterprise which finally resulted in depriving a member of the Philadelphia bar from legal business properly his. With these facts in the case, the jury was justified in imposing punitive damages on the defendants to the end that they, as well as all other persons and entities, should become aware that it is contrary to law and fair dealings in the United States, to sledgehammer a wedge between a lawyer and his client when both are satisfied with each other and have not invited intermeddling and officious intervention.

It is evident from the results that the jury paid no heed, and laudably so, to the banal, commonplace animadversions passed generally on lawyers.*fn2 Judge ALESSANDRONI, who presided at the trial, excellently put these hackneyed, mirthless, pointless so-called witticisms to rest when he instructed the jury: "Everyone engaged in the legal profession is aware of a long-standing opinion that a layman has had of lawyers, generally. Frankly it is not a good one. Rightly or wrongly, the opinion of the average layman towards a lawyer, is one of suspicion except with respect to his own lawyer. Then when he has his own lawyer, or ...


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