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Napoli, Bern, Ripka, Shkolnik & Associates, LLP v. Stratos Legal Services LP

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

June 25, 2019


          On Appeal from the 133rd District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2017-79380

          Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain.



         This is an interlocutory appeal from an order denying a special appearance made by nonresident entities Napoli, Bern, Ripka, Shkolnik & Associates, LLP; Napoli, Bern, Ripka, Shkolnik, LLP; and Napoli Shkolnik PLLC (together, the "Napoli appellants") in a suit based on over 100 unpaid invoices for reporting and other litigation-support services provided by Texas entity Stratos Legal Services, LP. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 120a; Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(7). Because we conclude that the Napoli appellants' Texas contacts are sufficient to establish specific jurisdiction over them and that exercising jurisdiction comports with fair play and substantial justice, we affirm.

         I. Background

         The Napoli appellants are New York entities, with principal executive offices in Melville, New York. Stratos, a Texas entity based in Houston, is a full-service litigation-support firm. From February 2015 through May 2016, Stratos was hired by and provided various services, including recording and transcribing depositions, to the Napoli appellants. The depositions related to the Napoli appellants' asbestos cases. The depositions were taken in various states, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The invoices for Stratos's services amounted to just under $53, 000. The Napoli appellants did not pay Stratos.

         In 2017, Stratos brought claims against the Napoli appellants for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and "money had and received," which is a form of unjust enrichment.[1] The Napoli appellants filed a special appearance in February 2018, attaching: entity information for each of the Napoli appellants from the New York Department of State Division of Corporations; an affidavit from Paul Maslo, a partner at Napoli Shkolnik PLLC; and a declaration from Patrick Haines, another partner at Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. The Napoli appellants did not include a verification as required by Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 120a.

         Stratos amended its petition, adding claims for promissory estoppel and under section 52.059 of the Government Code, which provides that an attorney taking a deposition and his law firm are jointly and severally liable to the court reporter for charges. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 52.059. To its amended petition, Stratos attached: the declaration from Haines; information regarding Haines captured from the State Bar of Texas website; information regarding locations and offices captured from the Napoli Shkolnik PLLC website; information regarding the Austin office captured from the Napoli Shkolnik PLLC website; Haines's attorney biography captured from the Napoli Shkolnik PLLC website; the invoices issued by Stratos to the Napoli appellants; and the statements of overdue invoices issued by Stratos to the Napoli appellants' accounts-payable departments.

         The Napoli appellants filed another special appearance. The Napoli appellants attached the same exhibits as before, except in place of Haines's original declaration, they included another declaration by Haines. Again, they did not include a verification.

         Stratos responded, attaching: an affidavit from Christin Chandler, the president of Stratos; screenshots from text-message exchanges between Haines and Chandler dated May and October 2015; and the overdue invoices and statements issued by Stratos to the Napoli appellants. Stratos pointed out that the Napoli appellants' special appearance was defective because it lacked a verification and the accompanying affidavits did not address all the factual allegations in the special appearance.

         The Napoli appellants filed an amended special appearance, this time including a verification. They did not attach any exhibits to their amended special appearance. The trial court held a hearing; no evidence was admitted at the hearing. On May 1, 2018, the trial court signed an order denying the Napoli appellants' special appearance. They appeal.

         II. Analysis

         Stratos alleged that the trial court has both general and specific personal jurisdiction over the Napoli appellants. In pertinent part, Stratos alleged the following with regard to personal jurisdiction:

• the Napoli appellants are law firms engaging in civil litigation in Texas;
• the Napoli appellants specifically communicated with Stratos as a Texas entity for the purpose of obtaining products and services;
• the Napoli appellants induced Stratos to enter into agreements for Stratos to provide them with products and services;
• Stratos is a full-service litigation support firm based in Houston, Texas;
• in the ordinary course of business, a law firm's authorized representative will contact Stratos directly to order services;
• Texas attorney Patrick Haines repeatedly contacted Stratos and requested that Stratos provide services in connection with a multitude of lawsuits involving asbestos-related claims;
• Stratos's claims relate to legal-support services that were requested by or on behalf of Haines;
• Haines is a partner at Napoli Shkolnik PLLC and is the partner in charge of the firm's asbestos litigation group;
• for at least the last five years, Haines has handled thousands of asbestos-related cases for the Napoli appellants, including the cases for which Stratos performed legal services at issue in this action;
• Haines was licensed to practice law in Texas in 1992, associated with Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, with a "primary practice location" in Houston, Texas;
• Haines's office address is 3001 Esperanza Crossing #1063, Austin, TX 78758;
• Haines has entered appearances in Texas courts on behalf of Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik LLP;
• Napoli Shkolnik PLLC maintains a public website, which states it is a national litigation firm with an office in Austin, Texas, and has a specific webpage devoted to its Texas office;
• Napoli Shkolnik PLLC expressly represents that it maintains "experienced and professional attorneys in Austin, Texas" that "are ready to serve you" and that "Texas attorneys are standing by, waiting to assist you with a plethora of legal needs you may have";
• Haines is identified as the "managing attorney" of the Texas office, who "has successfully tried cases to verdict in Texas";
• Haines has resided continuously in Texas since 2014, and is or was a partner and/or member of each of the Napoli appellants during the same time period;
• each of the Napoli appellants is a citizen of Texas for purposes of personal jurisdiction because the jurisdictional citizenship of a limited partnership and/or a limited liability company is ...

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