Frequent readers of this blog may recall my post from the end of last year in which I highlighted a decision of the Appellate Division, First Department affirming a decision of New York County Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich, that examined the application of Judiciary Law § 470. For those needing a refresher, Judiciary Law § 470 provides that an attorney residing in “an adjoining state” may practice New York – without moving for pro hac admission – only if both (I) admitted in New York and, (ii) more crucially to the Arrowhead Capital decision, maintains a physical law office in New York. In Arrowhead Capital, the Appellate Division affirmed Justice Kornreich’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint due entirely to its non-resident lawyer’s failure, in violation of Judiciary Law § 470, to maintain an office in New York.
Proving that this is not nearly as esoteric an issue as you might think is Platinum Rapid Funding Group, Ltd. v H D W of Raliegh, Inc., a recent decision out of the Nassau County Supreme Court (Hon. Jerome C. Murphy). While not a Commercial Division decision, Platinum Rapid Funding is valuable to readers of this blog for its additional analysis of Judiciary Law § 470. Before the Court in Platinum Rapid Funding was the plaintiff’s motion brought pursuant to Judiciary Law § 470, seeking disqualification of defendants’ counsel (the firm of Higbee & Associates [“Higbee”] and lawyer Rayminh L. Ngo [“Ngo”]) for failing to maintain an office for the transaction of law in New York, and dismissing the defendants’ counterclaims and affirmative defenses on the same basis. The court’s holding that defendants’ counsel did not maintain a physical office in the State of New York at the time they appeared in the action, relied on the following evidentiary findings:
- The defendants’ Verified Answer identified the principal office for Higbee as being in Santa Ana, California;
- Ngo identified himself not as an associate or partner of Higbee, but as the principal of his own law practice based in Salt Lake City, Utah;
- While Ngo asserted in opposition that he is duly admitted to practice in New York and was serving of counsel to Higbee, which he claimed was a “multijurisdictional law firm based in California” that purportedly leases office space on Wall Street and in Syracuse, neither Ngo nor Higbee asserted that there were attorneys or law firm staff in either location;
- The lease agreements subsequently submitted by Ngo as proof of the two New York office locations failed to establish that they were maintained by Higbee at the time Ngo and Higbee appeared in the action; and
- The court “[could not] overlook the fact that the defendants . . . failed to offer any competing evidence against the sworn affidavits of . . . process servers who attest[ed] that they physically went to [the Wall Street and Syracuse] addresses . . . and confirmed that neither Ngo nor Higbee had physical offices at th[ose] locations.”
The court further instructed that disqualification under these circumstances is not permissively left to the court’s discretion, but rather a finding that counsel’s violation of Judiciary Law § 470 mandates immediate disqualification from continued representation in the action. Platinum Rapid Funding offers another stern reminder to non-resident lawyers attempting to practice in New York State courts: be sure to maintain a physical office in New York at the time you first appear in a given action or else be prepared to be disqualified.