Connecticut lawyer can’t bring unfair competition claim against California lawyer

Shehu, LLC v. Adams, 2014 WL 567832, CV136017710S (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 17, 2014)

Plaintiffs (a Connecticut lawyer and his firm) sued Adams and his firm, both located in California.  In 2012, Adams emailed Shehu, LLC and two employees of the Connecticut Bar Association, stating that the plaintiffs “commented on an article with a mass produced, mechanically generated, irrelevant comment,” “spammed [his] site with the message,” and “used a dishonest ruse.” The email claimed that the plaintiffs engaged in unethical conduct and violated the ABA rules of professional responsibility.  Shehu responded and Adams reiterated his allegations, with the subject line, “Your Spam is a professional ethics violation.” A third email to the bar employees pointed to comments in his previous emails and stated that he had “no evidence” that Mr. Shehu or anyone at the Shehu law firm “had personal knowledge of the comments.”

Plaintiffs alleged that the emails were libelous per se and constituted unfair trade practices; this opinion only dealt with the claims under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.  Defendants challenged, essentially, standing. A CUTPA claim is available to [a]ny person who suffers any ascertainable loss of money or property, real or personal, as a result of the use or employment of a [prohibited] method, act or practice.”  As a remedial statute, the law is construed broadly.  The state supreme  court has held that “CUTPA is not limited to conduct involving consumer injury and … a competitor or other business person can maintain a CUTPA cause of action without showing consumer injury.”

Nonetheless, a plaintiff “must have at least some business relationship with the defendant in order to state a cause of action under CUTPA.” CUTPA was designed to protect two sets of people: consumers (from unfair or deceptive acts or practices) and other business people (from unfair competition), but “at the very least, other business people, who are not direct competitors, must have some type of commercial relationship with the alleged wrongdoer—commercial relationship not being so much a business relationship but some kind of relationship in the marketplace so that the particular acts of wrongdoing alleged will interfere with fair and open competition in that particular marketplace.”

Here, plaintiffs alleged that they were both attorneys, both engaged in internet marking efforts, and both use blogs to share information.  The cases require a “nexus” between the parties’ relationship and “an ascertainable loss caused by the defendant’s unfair or deceptive practices.” Here, the parties’ relationship wasn’t competitive in any ordinary sense, nor was it direct or “in a commercial marketplace.” Before the incident that sparked this conflict, the parties most likely didn’t know of the other’s existence.  It wasn’t enough that both practice law and use the internet to market/blog.  Adams was licensed exclusively in California and Shehu exclusively in Connecticut. 

Even if Shehu’s conduct, as alleged, “diminish[es] the number of websites competing for keywords desirable to the [d]efendants” such that it would result in less competition for the defendants’ websites “to appear at the top of search engine results for those desirable keywords,” that was still insufficient.  (I don’t even understand this allegation.)  The court noted that potential clients wouldn’t necessarily pick the first firm listed, and any decision they’d make between the parties would be more likely based on the location in which they desired to have the services performed.  This alleged commercial relationship was too tenuous to conclude that the “particular acts of wrongdoing alleged will interfere with fair and open competition in that particular marketplace.” Thus, the case was distinguishable from one in which an attorney who once worked for the defendants alleged that they made false statements that harmed her reputation; there, the parties were licensed to practice in the same state.
This entry was posted in consumer protection, standing, unfairness. Bookmark the permalink.

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