Chinese dissident can sue law firm over hack that exposed information online, judge rules

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A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that a Chinese asylum-seeker can sue the Clark Hill law firm over a 2017 hack that allegedly exposed personal data online.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled last week in the case of Guo Wengui, who describes himself in the malpractice suit as a “well-known Chinese dissident” and a “highly successful businessman.” Bloomberg Law has coverage of the Feb. 20 decision.

The hack had exposed personal information, such as passport numbers, as well as the contents of Wengui’s asylum petition, according to his suit.

Wengui alleged that he had warned Clark Hill about possible cyberattacks because of his exposure of corruption and human rights abuses by the Communist Party of China. The firm had assured him that it would take special precautions to prevent any improper disclosures, Wengui alleged.

Boasberg allowed Wengui to sue over the exposed information but not over the law firm’s withdrawal from the case after the cyberattack. Boasberg also dismissed Wengui’s demand for punitive damages.

Clark Hill had withdrawn because the hack provided evidence of Wengui’s political persecution, and its lawyers might have to serve as witnesses in the asylum proceeding, Boasberg said.

When the law firm withdrew from the case, Wengui’s asylum application had already been filed. The withdrawal “may have added insult, but it did not add injury,” Boasberg wrote.

Boasberg noted that evidence may later reveal no negligence or no misrepresentations by the law firm. But Wengui’s claim over the hacked data should not be dismissed at this stage. Boasberg said.

“Plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded that defendants breached their duties of loyalty and good faith by misrepresenting the manner in which they would protect his confidential information in order to secure his business,” Boasberg wrote.

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