District Court Dismisses Malicious Prosecution Claim Arising Out of Alleged Breach of Equipment Lease

In Villari Brandes & Giannone v. Wells Fargo Fin. Leasing, No. 13-297, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141391 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2013), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a tort claim for wrongful use of civil proceedings under the Dragonetti Act (the “Act”), codified at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 8351-8354. The dispute arose out of an equipment lease, pursuant to which the plaintiff law firm leased office equipment from the lessor. The lease consisted of multiple documents, including separate equipment rental and sales agreements. One of the other documents, which set forth additional terms and conditions, gave the plaintiff the right to terminate the agreement setting forth the additional terms and conditions and the sales agreement early. Unbeknownst to the plaintiff, however, the lessor had assigned its rights under the lease to the defendant from the outset. Accordingly, when the plaintiff sought to terminate the lease early, the defendant assignee objected and filed suit in state court to enforce its rights under the equipment lease. The defendant, however, did not disclose the portion of the lease that gave the plaintiff the right to terminate early. On the eve of trial, the defendant voluntarily dismissed the state court suit. The plaintiff subsequently commenced suit, which was later removed to federal court, essentially alleging that the defendant and its law firm had improperly filed suit and withheld the operative portion of the lease. Under these facts, the court refused to recognize a claim under the Act.

The court began its analysis by noting that the plaintiff carried the burden of proof, and that the burden was “heavy”-i.e., the plaintiff had to prove that the defendant and law firm had no reasonable basis (i.e., lacked probable cause) or failed to exercise any degree of care (i.e., acted grossly negligent) in filing the suit. Moreover, the plaintiff had to prove an improper purpose. The court determined that this burden of proof was not met since it was uncertain whether the contract setting forth the additional terms and conditions precluded the defendants’ action for breach of the equipment rental agreement, as opposed to the sales agreement. In other words, because the relationship between the various documents comprising the equipment lease was debatable, the plaintiff could not demonstrate that the defendants acted without probable cause or in a grossly negligent manner. In addition, the court separately concluded that the plaintiff failed to prove that defendants owed them a duty of care for purposes of asserting a negligence claim and could not prove actionable fraud.

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