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Law firm settles suit by condemnation client

ROCKVILLE – A Rockville law firm has agreed to pay $15,000 to settle a former client’s claim of legal malpractice stemming from representation during a condemnation action.

Brown & Sturm P.A. reached the settlement with Johanna Soleimanzadeh just days before a jury trial was scheduled to start in Montgomery County Circuit Court earlier this month.

Soleimanzadeh alleged that her former lawyers’ failure to comply with discovery obligations prevented her from providing evidence of flooding and other damages she suffered after the county condemned part of her property on Travilah Road.

The attorneys, R. Edwin Brown and Dennis M. Ettlin, say Soleimanzadeh has never produced admissible evidence of such damages — not in the condemnation case and not in the malpractice case.

Even so, the lawyers and the firm decided it would have cost more than the settlement amount to go to trial, said Donna E. McBride, who represents them in the malpractice action.

“We felt we could have won the case, but to take up three or four days of court time didn’t make sense,” said McBride, a partner with Miller, Miller & Canby Chtd. in Rockville.

Levi S. Zaslow, Soleimanzadeh’s lawyer, said his client’s goal in filing suit was to “achieve justice.”

“The prosecution and settlement of the case provided that,” said Zaslow, senior counsel at Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.

Misstated due date

Montgomery County took a portion of Soleimanzadeh’s property, along with property of her neighbors, in May 2007 to build a drainage swale and sidewalk, according to a joint pretrial statement. The county also required an easement in the rear of Soleimanzadeh’s house for stormwater management, according to the statement.

Montgomery County filed a complaint for condemnation in April 2009, alleging the appropriate compensation was approximately $70,000. Soleimanzadeh hired Ettlin and Brown to represent her in the court proceedings, and the lawyers recommended a settlement of more than $200,000, according to the pretrial statement.

The county sent requests for documents in October 2009. Brown and Ettlin never responded to the requests even after receiving an extension, according to court filings. A county judge on Jan. 27, 2010 ordered Brown and Ettlin to provide “complete responses” to the discovery within 10 days or Soleimanzadeh would be prohibited from introducing any evidence to support her claim, according to court filings.

Brown asked Soleimanzadeh to help with discovery and said the answers needed to be certified by Feb. 25, 2010, according to the pretrial statement.

“The defense recognizes this advice was ‘obviously incorrect,’” according to the statement.

Ettlin wrote the county in mid-February seeking an extension for discovery responses, which the county declined, according to the statement. A subsequent defense motion to vacate the sanctions was denied, according to the pretrial statement.

Because of the sanctions, Soleimanzadeh was unable at the May 2010 trial “to testify regarding numerous issues caused by the taking, including loss in value [and] flooding of the property,” according to the statement.

The jury awarded Soleimanzadeh just under $65,000, less than what the county originally wanted to offer her.

Brown and Ettlin countered that two independent appraisers hired by the county for the condemnation case found no damage to the property, and an independent appraiser hired by Soleimanzadeh also did not find any damage to her property, according to the pretrial statement. The lawyers also noted there were no photographs of any alleged flooding, according to the pretrial statement.

“The plaintiff has never contacted Montgomery County to seek redress for the alleged problems that she claims resulted from the County roadwork on Travilah Road,” according to the pretrial statement.

Several experts offered by Soleimanzadeh for the malpractice trial were also excluded by the court for their “unreliable methodology,” according to McBride.

Zaslow, Soleimanzadeh’s lawyer, said his client had testimony from a professional engineer on damage done to the property and a defense expert said the value of the taken property was $13,000 higher than what Soleimanzadeh received.

Brother, mother also sue

Brown & Sturm, Brown individually and Ettlin also have been sued for legal malpractice on similar grounds by Soleimanzadeh’s brother and mother, who own two houses on Travilah Road.

Joseph and Khana Soleimanzadeh were awarded just compensation of $87,000 for the condemnations after the county was granted a motion for summary judgment. The Court of Special Appeals in 2012 threw out that award, finding the trial judge could not grant a motion for summary judgment in a condemnation proceeding on the issue of just compensation, but Joseph and Khana Soleimanzadeh sought review by the Court of Appeals. Their legal malpractice case was stayed in June 2013 pending the Court of Appeals’ decision.

The Court of Appeals reversed the intermediate appellate court in December 2013 and reinstated the trial court award.

The clerk’s office in Montgomery County Circuit Court sent notice on July 7 that the malpractice proceeding would automatically be dismissed in 30 days unless written action was taken.

No action has been taken on the malpractice case since that letter was sent, according to court records. Daniel L. Shea of Brault Graham LLC in Rockville, a lawyer for the Soleimanzadehs, did not respond to a request for comment.

JOHANNA SOLEIMANZADEH V. BROWN & STURM, ET AL.

Court:

Montgomery County Circuit

Case No.:

374649V

Judge:

Robert A. Greenberg

Outcome:

Settlement of $15,000 for the plaintiff

Dates:

Event: April 2009 to May 2010

Suit filed: April 10, 2013

Settlement: July 17, 2014

Plaintiff’s Attorney:

Levi S. Zaslow of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A.

Defendants’ Attorney:

Donna E. McBride of Miller, Miller & Canby Chtd. in Rockville

Counts:

Negligence – legal malpractice