Trials & Litigation

Law firm that used job candidate's statements in lawsuit won't be sanctioned

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A federal judge in San Francisco has refused to sanction a law firm accused of secretly recording a job interview with a former employee of a litigation opponent and then using the information in its amended lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney on Thursday denied the motion for sanctions against LegalForce RAPC, a plaintiff in a suit that contends Trademark Engine uses nonlawyer employees for legal work. Trademark Engine is among more than a half-dozen trademark registration services facing suits by LegalForce that make the same claim.

Trademark Engine’s sanctions motion didn’t seek to sanction LegalForce for using the job applicant’s information in its suit. Instead, the motion contended Legal Force had filed a frivolous sanctions motion as it claimed Trademark Engine’s owner had tampered with a witness—the secretly recorded employee—when it informed her that LegalForce used her job interview information in the suit. LegalForce later withdrew the witness-tampering motion.

Trademark Engine had sought sanctions under a federal statute that targets lawyers who multiply proceedings “unreasonably and vexatiously,” Law360 reports. The standard is tougher than the “objectively reasonable” standard used to assess pleadings when sanctions are sought under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The secretly recorded job applicant was Jordan Franklin, a recent law firm graduate who was a former nonlawyer employee at Trademark Engine. LegalForce had offered her a job. Its witness-tampering motion was based on this email from Franklin:

“I was informed and aware of the pending litigation you all had against LegalZoom et al., however, after speaking with my mentor this morning I was made aware of the amended complaint against him and his company. I was willing to proceed with the opportunity until my loyalty, character and morals were adversely affected. Not only was I made aware of the amended lawsuit, I was informed of quotes used that were directly from me and obtained during the initial phone interview, even though my identity was kept secret.”

LegalForce had interpreted the email to suggest that Trademark Engine’s owner, lawyer Travis Crabtree, had implied to Franklin that taking a job with LegalForce might affect his character and fitness recommendation when she seeks admission to the State Bar of Texas.

Chesney concluded there is not enough evidence to show the witness-tampering sanctions motion was filed in bad faith. And even if LegalForce’s interpretation of the email was incorrect and ill-advised, there is an insufficient showing that LegalForce acted recklessly by filing a sanctions motion, Chesney said.

LegalForce founder Raj Abhyanker tells in an emailed statement that he is pleased with the decision.

“We had zero doubt. We knew we would not be sanctioned given the facts,” he said. Abhyanker also said he continues to believe that Trademark Engine interferes with witnesses, and he believes Trademark Engine’s sanctions motion against LegalForce was frivolous.

He also points to a section of Chesney’s opinion saying that if there were witness intimidation by Crabtree, it was “potentially sanctionable as contrary to the rules of professional responsibility.”

See also: Sanctions motion argues law firm secretly recorded job interview to gain information for suit

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