The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph F. Bianco, District Judge
Plaintiffs Michael and Christine Fierro brought this action against Thomas and Florence Gallucci, Villa Pointe LLC, and James and Ann Marie Nicotra, claiming that defendants committed fraud by making false and misleading statements to the plaintiffs in order to induce plaintiffs to enter into a contract of sale for their home. Plaintiffs contend that the subsequent demolition of the home and development of the property constitute, among other things, fraud, fraudulent inducement, and breach of contract. Plaintiffs now move to disqualify defendants' counsel - namely, the law firm of Dollinger, Gonski, and Grossman (hereinafter, "the Dollinger Firm" or the "Firm") - because, according to Michael Fierro, he consulted with a member of the Dollinger Firm almost two years prior to bringing this lawsuit about the subject matter of this lawsuit. As set forth below, the motion to disqualify is granted.
This case involves the plaintiffs sale of their residence at 327 Lakeview Avenue in Rockville Centre, New York (hereinafter, the "Residence"), to Thomas and Florence Gallucci (hereinafter, the "Gallucci Defendants").
According to the amended complaint, plaintiffs were introduced to the Gallucci Defendants by James and Ann-Marie Nicotra (hereinafter, the "Nicotra Defendants"), who reside immediately adjacent to the Residence. (Amended Compl. ¶ 8.) The amended complaint alleges that the Gallucci Defendants, the Nicotra Defendants, and an LLC created by the Galucci Defendants - namely, Villa Pointe LLC - "were partners in a scheme to con the Plaintiffs into selling the Galucci Defendants their Home, and to then tear it down and develop the property with new homes." (Id. ¶ 9.) Specifically, it is alleged that the Gallucci Defendants fraudulently concealed their intention to tear down the home and develop the property. (Id. ¶ 11.) Less than one week prior to the consummation of the contract of sale in August 2004, the Gallucci Defendants allegedly informed plaintiffs that they wished to have the right to purchase the home under the contract of sale transferred to the Villa Pointe LLC. (Id. ¶ 19.) According to the complaint, prior to the agreement to this assignment of rights to the LLC, plaintiffs asked the Gallucci Defendants whether they intended to tear down the Residence and the Gallucci Defendants denied any current intention to tear down the home. (Id. ¶¶ 23-24.) The complaint further alleges that, within one month after the closing on the Residence, the Gallucci Defendants had arranged for the property to be re-zoned for two homes and, shortly thereafter, had the Residence destroyed. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) Plaintiffs allege that, pursuant to a partnership with the Nicotra Defendants, the Gallucci Defendants (through the Villa Pointe LLC) built two new residences in place of the Residence which sold for approximately $1,300,000 each. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31.)
Plaintiffs allege, among other things, that the Gallucci Defendants and Nicotra Defendants made false and misleading statements prior to the signing of the contract of sale in order to fraudulently induce them to enter into the contract of sale for the purchase of the Residence. (Id. ¶¶ 35,45.) Plaintiffs contend that "had the [Plaintiffs] known about Defendants' plan to tear down their Home, and had it not been for Defendants' false and misleading statements to Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs would have never sold the Home to Gallucci Defendants, nor would they have agreed to the assignment for the contract of sale to the LLC or the waiver of the rights under the contract of sale." (Id. ¶ 32.)
B. Facts Regarding Disqualification Motion
According to plaintiffs, in late November/ early December of 2004, plaintiffs became aware of defendants' intentions and actions to demolish plaintiffs' former residence and develop the property. According to Michael Fierro, he then consulted with Matthew Dollinger, Esq., of the Dollinger Firm on at least two, and possibly three, occasions. (Michael Fierro Affidavit ¶ 3.) Mr. Fierro stated in his affidavit that these conversations related to potential claims pertaining to the subject matter of this action:
The subject of my conversation with Mr. Dollinger related to potential claims for fraud against the defendants in the above-referenced lawsuit, relating to the sale of our former home. During the conversations, Mr. Dollinger and I discussed the underlying facts of the case, potential claims against the defendants, potential defenses available to the defendants, dollar amounts at risk, and relevant case law and other legal theories applicable to the facts in issue.
(Id. ¶¶ 4-5.) Mr. Fierro further contends that a fax was sent to him relating to the relevant case law pertaining to plaintiffs' claim. (Id. ¶ 6.) Finally, Mr. Fierro states the following: (1) "I have not consented to the Dollinger firm's representation of the defendants in this action" (Id. ¶ 7); and (2) "I have not consented to the disclosure of any of the contents of my conversations with any employee of the Dollinger firm nor of any confidential information concerning this case in the Dollinger firm's possession, nor have I waived the attorney-client privilege covering my conversations with the Dollinger firm and its employees" (Id. ¶ 8). Plaintiffs decided not to retain Mr. Dollinger and his Firm to represent them in this matter and filed this lawsuit pro se on September 25, 2006.
Mr. Dollinger stated in an affirmation to the Court that he has "absolutely no recollection of ever having been contacted by Michael Fierro, or anyone on behalf of the plaintiffs." (Dollinger Affirmation ¶ 5.) Mr. Dollinger further stated that he does "not recall ever speaking with Bernadette Arnold, Esq., who apparently was Mr. Fierro's realestate attorney in connection with the transaction underlying the plaintiff's lawsuit." (Id.) However, at the Court's request, Mr. Dollinger searched the Firm's records to determine whether there is any documentation reflecting contact with Mr. Fierro.*fn1
A search of the Firm's records revealed a record of a phone message from Mr. Fierro taken by Mr. Dollinger's Office Administrator on December 10, 2004, which suggests that Mr. Dollinger spoke with Bernadette Arnold on December 9, 2004, and that the Dollinger Firm had sent a fax to Mr. Fierro. (Id. ¶ 10; see also Attachment to Aug. 14, 2007 Letter to the Court.) A further search of telephone company records by the Firm reflects that two telephone calls were placed from the Firm to plaintiffs' telephone number in Atlanta, Georgia, one lasting 36 seconds, and another lasting ten minutes, twelve seconds. (Dollinger Affirmation ¶ 13.) Based upon these records, Mr. Dollinger concluded the following in his Affirmation: "I assume from these records that I called Michael Fierro and spoke with him for about ten minutes. But again, I have no recollection of ever having spoken to him. I kept no record of any conversation between myself, and Michael Fierro." (Id.) Mr. Dollinger emphasized, "I have not worked on, nor have I had any connection with this case except my appearance before Judge Bianco on August 7, 2007 to address the conflict-of-interest issue." (Id. ¶ 17.) Instead, his partners, with the assistance of some associates, have performed all the legal work ...