Altobelli v. Hartmann (Opinion on Application)Annotate this Case
In 1993, plaintiff Dean Altobelli began working as an attorney for Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C. (“the Firm”). Upon joining the Firm, plaintiff signed the “Miller Canfield Operating Agreement” (“Operating Agreement”), a document governing the Firm’s internal affairs. By January 2006, plaintiff had become a senior principal at the Firm. However, in late May or early June 2010, plaintiff decided he wanted to pursue a new opportunity as an assistant coach for the University of Alabama football team. Plaintiff proposed a 7- to 12-month leave of absence from the Firm to defendant Michael Hartmann, the Firm’s CEO, and defendant Michael Coakley, who was the head of the Firm’s litigation group but was not a managing director. Plaintiff suggested that the Firm permit him to maintain his ownership interest and return to the Firm as a senior principal any time before June 1, 2011. Plaintiff avers that Hartmann initially promised plaintiff that he could spend as much time at the University of Alabama as he wanted and still receive certain allocated income from his clients. Hartmann disputed this, claiming that plaintiff voluntarily withdrew from the partnership. Plaintiff claimed he was improperly terminated, and that the Firm shorted plaintiff's income as a result. Plaintiff's attempt to resolve the matter through the direct settlement and mediation process, as outlined in the arbitration clause of the Operating Agreement, was unsuccessful. In November 2011, plaintiff filed a demand for arbitration as provided for in the arbitration clause. Despite having made the demand for arbitration, he filed suit alleging that the seven individuals named as defendants were responsible for engaging in tortious conduct with regard to plaintiff's request for a leave of absence and retention of his equity ownership in the Firm. Defendants moved for summary judgment and a motion to compel arbitration as required by the arbitration clause. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment too. The circuit court denied defendants’ motions and granted plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment, finding as a matter of law that plaintiff did not voluntarily withdraw from the Firm. Rather, the circuit court concluded that defendants had improperly terminated plaintiff's ownership interest without authority. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the part of the Court of Appeals’ opinion regarding the motion to compel arbitration and instead held that this case was subject to binding arbitration under the arbitration clause of the Operating Agreement. Accordingly, the lower courts should not have reached the merits of plaintiff’s motion for partial summary disposition, as the motion addressed substantive contractual matters that should have been resolved by the arbitrator. The case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.