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Al Jazeera sues lawyers in Greenbelt court

Seeks millions after settlement with construction firm

Al Jazeera International is suing its former law firm for more than $2 million after losing a contract dispute with its construction company.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the international media outlet says Dow Lohnes LLP and attorney Leslie H. Wiesenfelder breached the standard of care in not thoroughly investigating the underlying construction lawsuit, which stemmed from the renovation of Al Jazeera’s K Street offices in Washington, D.C.

Wiesenfelder was out of the country Friday and unavailable for comment. Attorney John T. Byrnes of Dow Lohnes did not respond to requests for comment.

Al Jazeera’s attorney, Benjamin Rosenberg of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP in Baltimore, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Al Jazeera International is a division of Al Jazeera Media Network, based in Doha, Qatar. It was launched as an English news channel in 2006.

Late in 2005, Al Jazeera hired Winmar to renovate the Washington television studio and offices. Under the contract, Winmar was to submit applications for payment to the architect, Janson Design Group, which would review and certify the amount to be paid by Al Jazeera.

Janson certified four different payments between the start of construction and early December 2005, totaling around $1.8 million.

Al Jazeera paid the first installment of $474,677, but later asked for the money back. Winmar refused, citing the certifications by the architect.

Al Jazeera then hired an outside billing consultant, who determined that Winmar had overcharged Al Jazeera. As a result, in January 2006, Janson wrote to Winmar and rescinded its certification of about $1.36 million in payments, saying they were wrongly approved.

Al Jazeera then terminated its contract with Winmar, invoking a “termination for convenience” clause and paying $262,146 as the amount due under that clause.

That July, Al Jazeera’s bank, Qatar National Bank, filed suit against Winmar. Winmar responded with a third-party complaint against Al Jazeera for breach of contract, again citing the architect’s certification for payment.

Al Jazeera retained Washington-based Dow Lohnes and Wiesenfelder, who structured a defense centered on the termination for convenience clause and did not bring Janson into the case.

“Al Jazeera’s position is that the architect’s certification has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the amount of money that Winmar is entitled to under a termination for convenience provision,” Wiesenfelder said during opening statements in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The judge found otherwise, issuing an opinion in September 2010 finding Al Jazeera breached the contract and entering judgment in favor of Winmar for $1.47 million, including attorney’s fees.

Al Jazeera appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, still using Dow Lohnes attorneys. The parties, however, decided to settle, with Al Jazeera paying Winmar $2 million in order to avoid an extra $1 million in post-judgment interest and legal fees.

In the action filed Thursday in Greenbelt, Al Jazeera claims its attorneys should have taken into account Janson’s role in the arrangement. Al Jazeera claims “a reasonably competent lawyer” would have either brought Janson in as a witness to support its defense or brought a third-party complaint against the architect for breach of duty of care.

“As a result of [Dow Lohnes’]’ failure to investigate the Architect’s role in the underlying events of the Winmar Litigation, [Dow Lohnes attorneys] were completely unprepared at trial to respond to the issue of the Architect’s payment certifications, leaving their client AJI, completely exposed to Winmar’s claims based on the Architect’s Certificates of Payment,” the complaint states.

As damages, Al Jazeera is seeking the $2 million it paid to Winmar under the settlement, the $262,146 it paid to terminate the contract, and the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in legal fees it paid throughout the case.