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Mahendra Kumar Trivedi, et al v. Tania M. Slawecki

July 23, 2012

MAHENDRA KUMAR TRIVEDI, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS
v.
TANIA M. SLAWECKI, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Presently pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for disqualification of Defendant's counsel. (Doc. No. 19.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated more fully herein, the Court will deny the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Basis of the Litigation

Plaintiff Mahendra Kumar Trivedi is the founder of the Trivedi Foundation and Trivedi Master Wellness, which are also named as Plaintiffs in this action. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 8.) The Trivedi Foundation is a non-profit organization that "works with the scientific community at major universities and research centers to document the transformational properties of Trivedi's Energy Transmissions, which impact living organisms and inanimate objects for better performance." (Id. ¶ 9.) Defendant Tania M. Slawecki is a research associate at the Materials Research Institute and a former assistant professor in the science, technology, and society program at the Pennsylvania State University. (Id. ¶ 11.) From approximately June 2009 through September 2009, Dr. Rustum Roy, a professor at Penn State, and Defendant, who was then working as a research assistant to Dr. Roy, performed tests on Plaintiff Trivedi's "unique abilities" to "affect physical materials" at Penn State's materials research laboratory. (Id. ¶ 12; Doc. No. 1-2 at 4, 11.)

Plaintiffs allege that Defendant defamed Trivedi and tortiously interfered with their business relationships. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert that Defendant posted two publications online, and sent one email, containing defamatory statements. In the email, Defendant wrote:

We now know Trivedi is taking human growth hormone injections which is what causes his pituitary to be enlarged, causes him to need to drink all that water, increases his virility and makes him irritable and nasty. Thus the data that shows his cartilage is like that of a [twenty year old] is true because this is an effect of the [human growth hormone injections]. He pretends to be celibate but is driven to sex because of taking the [injections]. One [nineteen-year-old] girl he sexually abused, he beat her up so badly she wound up in the hospital. Her father pulled her out of the group and they are now pressing charges against Trivedi. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 19-20; Doc. No. 1-2 at 24.) According to Plaintiffs, such statements have deterred third parties from associating or dealing with Plaintiffs and have exposed them "to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy." (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 31-32.)

B. Facts Relevant to Plaintiffs' Motion for Disqualification

Defendant is represented by Attorneys Steven F. Lachman and James S. Turner. Attorney Turner is a founding partner of the firm Swankin & Turner. (Doc. No. 19 ¶ 1; Doc. No. 23 at 1.) Attorney Turner avers that he has served as legal counsel to Friends of Health, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by the late Dr. Roy, since 2000, and that, in 2009, Dr. Roy asked him to meet with Plaintiff Trivedi to discuss how Friends of Health, Inc. and the Trivedi Foundation, then known as the Divine Life Foundation, might work together. (Doc. No. 23 at 1-2.) Later that year, Attorney Turner became a member of the Foundation's board of directors. (Id.; Doc. No. 19 ¶ 2.) According to Plaintiffs, Attorney Turner performed legal work for the Foundation and "gained insight and information concerning the plans for the growth of the Foundation, detail of its operation and information regarding its structure and economic functioning." (Doc. No. 19 ¶¶ 5-6.) Plaintiffs further aver that Attorney Turner was "privy to information relating to research with various [U.S.] universities and research institutes" and "learned directly of the Research performed by Dr. Rustum Roy . . . concerning the impact [of] Trivedi's biofield treatment upon water." (Id. ¶ 6.) In December 2009, Attorney Turner resigned from the Foundation's board of directors and was appointed the chairman of the Foundation's legal committee. (Doc. No. 19-1 at 26; Doc. No. 23 at 2.) Attorney Turner alleges that he has neither had contact with Plaintiff Trivedi nor dealings with the Foundation since December 2009, but he does not identify the date on which he resigned as the chairman of the legal committee. (Doc. No. 23 at 2.)

On May 1, 2012, Marsha Kramarck, the secretary of the Foundation, informed Attorney Turner of his purported conflict of interest in representing Defendant in this action. (Doc. No. 19 ¶ 7; Doc. No. 19-1 at 25.) Attorney Turner responded to Ms. Kramarack on May 4, 2012, refusing to withdraw as Defendant's counsel and denying that he had ever served on the Foundation's board of directors. (Doc. No. 19 ¶ 8; Doc. No. 19-1 at 7.) In response, Ms. Kramarack forwarded several documents to Attorney Turner, including: (1) a September 22, 2009 email requesting his biography and photo for the Foundation's website; (2) a copy of his biography and photo purportedly posted on the website; (3) a September 25, 2009 email authored by Betsy E. Lehrfeld, an attorney at Swankin & Turner, proposing the election of Attorney Turner to the Foundation's board of trustees; (4) a November 19, 2009 email authored by Ms. Lehrfeld, containing "[Attorney Turner's] and my response" to questions regarding changing the name of the Foundation, amending the Foundation's articles of incorporation, and registering the Foundation as a foreign corporation in California; (5) a December 3, 2009 email sent to Attorney Turner regarding his "diagram for the business structures;" (6) a December 7, 2009 email sent to Attorney Turner, seeking legal advice regarding the name change of the Foundation; (7) a December 23, 2009 email written by Attorney Turner, resigning from the board of directors and stating his intent to become part of the Foundation's advisory counsel; and (8) a copy of the minutes of a December 22, 2009 meeting of the board of trustees, stating that the board accepts the resignation of Attorney Turner and acknowledging that he is now part of the advisory council in the position of chairman of the legal Committee. (Doc. No. 19-1 at 13-17, 19, 21-22, 25-26.)

After receiving these documents, Attorney Turner again refused to withdraw as counsel for Defendant. (Doc. No. 19 ¶ 17.) Accordingly, on May 10, 2012, Plaintiffs filed the instant motion to disqualify Attorney Turner as Defendant's counsel. (Doc. No. 19.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"Federal courts have inherent authority to supervise the conduct of attorneys appearing before them." AgSaver LLC v. FMC Corp., No. 11-cv-997, 2011 WL 2274178, at *3 (E.D. Pa. June 9, 2011).To guide such supervision, this Court has adopted the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. See M.D. Pa. L.R. 83.23.2. Violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, however, does not result in mandatory disqualification. See, e.g., AgSaver LLC, 2011 WL 2274178, at *3. "Rather, to disqualify opposing counsel, the moving party must clearly show that continued representation would be impermissible." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, "[d]isqualification is a harsh measure and is generally disfavored by the court." Id.; see also Bell v. Lackawanna Cnty., No. 08-cv-1926, 2011 WL 2356851, at *1 n.6 (M.D. Pa. June 7, 2011). But "a court may disqualify an attorney . . . when disqualification is an appropriate means of enforcing the applicable disciplinary rule, keeping in mind any countervailing policies, such as permitting a litigant to retain the counsel of his choice and enabling attorneys to practice without excessive restrictions." Mumma v. Bobali Corp., 382 F. App'x 209, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation and internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Nonetheless, doubts regarding the existence of an ethical rule violation should be construed in favor of disqualification." AgSaver LLC, 2011 WL 2274178, at *3.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs assert that since Attorney Turner advised the Foundation on legal matters while acting as a member of the Foundation's board of directors and advisory council, the Court should disqualify him from representing Defendant pursuant to Rule 1.9 of the Pennsylvania Rules of ...


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