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This case, Ostrolenk Faber LLP v. Sakar International, Inc., 2019 NY Slip Op 31303(U), holds that a counterclaim for legal malpractice against an intellectual property firm stated a claim. Sakar retained Ostrolenk to defend it in a patent infringement lawsuit. In the underlying case, a plaintiff alleged that a product manufactured and sold by Sakar to Office Depot violated plaintiff’s patent.The case was eventually settled.

The current case involved (a) the law firm suing for legal fees; and (b) the former client, Sakar, filing a counterclaim for legal malpractice.  The counterclaim alleged that the law firm failed to promptly research the “prior art” in the particular invention. Had it done so, the law firm would have realized that the patent infringement claim against Sakar had no merit. Instead, the firm engaged in other litigation activity which, in Sakar’s view, ran up costs.

The court held that the counterclaim stated a claim and reasoned as follows:

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One of the more common issues that arise in a legal malpractice case is when did the claim arise? In Schwab v. Zarhadnik, 18-1118, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that a divorce malpractice claim accrued on the date of the divorce decree. Plaintiff alleged that her attorney failed to pursue certain claims in the divorce proceeding, including a medical malpractice claim filed by husband after the divorce. The Court of Appeals held that Schwab had no claim and that, even if she did have a claim. the claim was barred by the five-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice. The discussion:

In order to determine when Schwab’s damages occurred, we must determine how Schwab was injured. Settlement payments received before dissolution are marital property. In re Marriage of Schriner, 695 N.W.2d 493, 497 (Iowa 2005). “The proceeds of a personal injury claim are divided according to the circumstances of each case.” In re Marriage of Plasencia, 541 N.W.2d 923, 926 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995) (citing In re Marriage of McNerney, 417 N.W.2d 205, 206 (Iowa 1987)). Settlement proceeds do not automatically belong to either party. McNerney, 417 N.W.2d at 208. Rights not specifically preserved in the dissolution decree are forfeited. Iowa Code § 598.20 (2009); see also Plasencia, 541 N.W.2d at 926. Moreover, benefits and proceeds received after a divorce is final are the separate property of the injured spouse. In re Marriage of Schmitt, No. 15-1207, 2016 WL 3556462, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. June 29, 2016). We have held a spouse does not have “a right to any part of a future recovery made after the dissolution.” In re Marriage of Jervik, No. 15-0766, 2016 WL 5930425, at *7 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2016).

Even if we found Schwab had a right to a part of Musel’s recovery and found Zahradnik violated a duty to Schwab in failing to preserve that right, the statute of limitations would bar Schwab’s claim against Zahradnik. The dissolution decree was entered in 2009, more than five years before Schwab commenced this action on January 5, 2017. Therefore Iowa Code section 614.1(4) bars Schwab’s action unless a legal doctrine tolls the limitations period. See Skadburg, 911 N.W.2d at 793.

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Illinois has a rule that allows a plaintiff to dismiss a case once. The plaintiff can then refile the case. The rule does not allow multiple dismissals. In Webster Bank v. Pierce & Associates, P.C., No. 16 C 2522 (N.D. IL March 14, 2019), the court denied a defendant law firm’s motion for summary judgment because the law firm had violated the refiling rule.

The Illinois single refiling rule provides that if:

the action is voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff, or the action is dismissed for want of prosecution, * * * the plaintiff, his or her heirs, executors or administrators may commence a new action within one year or within the remaining period of limitation, whichever is greater, after * * * the action is voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff.735 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/13-217. This provision is understood to “permit[] one, and only one, refiling of a claim.” Flesner v. Youngs Development Co., 145 Ill.2d 252, 254 (1991). The single refiling rule is considered to be an extension of res judicata. Carr v. Tillery, 591 F.3d 909, 915 (7th Cir. 2010) (“The one-refiling rule is thus the extension of the doctrine of res judicata to a class of cases in which the decision deemed to be res judicata is a dismissal without prejudice.”)

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This case, Alerding Castor Hewitt, LLP v. Paul Fletcher, et al, 16-cv-02453 (S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division) (April 18, 2019) illustrates the necessity of obtaining expert testimony to support a claim. Fletcher brought a malpractice claim against his former counsel after counsel sued for legal fees. Fletcher alleged that the attorneys were negligent when they represented him in a civil forgery case. The court disagreed and granted summary judgment for the attorneys.

Fletcher could not show that any alleged error by the attorneys proximately caused his loss because he had no expert testimony to support his claims:

To establish the applicable standard of care, Alerding Castor has presented an expert report from attorney David C. Jensen. Jensen’s thorough report discusses his review of the record from the Forgery Lawsuit in light of the applicable standard of care. Dkt. 130-3. Jensen concludes that Alerding Castor exercised ordinary skill and knowledge in litigating the Forgery Lawsuit and met the standard of care they were obligated to provide in its representation of Defendants. Id. at 16. Jensen’s conclusions are amply supported by the facts in the record.

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ISBA Mutual has won an appeal against a case filed by the McNabola Law Group, P.C., 2019 IL App (1st) 182386. McNabola handled a case for Scot and Patricia Vandenberg against Brunswick. While that jury was deliberating, there was a dispute as to whether McNabola obtained inside information about the jury’s deliberations before accepting the settlement. (That dispute is itself complicated and the facts are disputed. There have been multiple proceedings to sort out that dispute). The Vandenbergs discharged McNabola and retained new counsel. After the Vandenberg case settled, the Vandenbergs challenged the validity of McNabola’s lien. The Vandenbergs also sued McNabola for legal malpractice.

McNabola requested that his insurer, ISBA Mutual, handle the lien dispute. ISBA mutual refused on the ground that the dispute involved legal fees, not a malpractice claim. The trial court ruled that ISBA mutual had a duty to defend McNabola, but the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed and reversed. The holding follows:

¶ 29 We find that the underlying motion did not seek damages arising from wrongful conduct as defined in the malpractice policy and contemplated by the parties. Accordingly, ISBA Mutual had no duty to defend McNabola against the Vandenbergs’ motion to adjudicate an attorney’s lien, and the trial court’s finding to the contrary was error.

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In this case, Eskridge v. Fletcher, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One, No. 78013-1-l, a medical doctor sued the lawyers who unsuccessfully represented him in his license revocation proceeding. The record indicated that there was substantial evidence that Dr. Eskridge had acted inappropriately towards other doctors and patients. As a result, the hospital revoked his admission privileges. After an internal review, Dr. Eskridge’s privileges were revoked. On the advice of the defendant lawyers, Eskridge elected not to appeal that determination.

The malpractice lawsuit alleged that, had the appeal been filed, it would have been successful and Eskridge would have retained his privileges.

The trial court disagreed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that he could not show by clear and convincing evidence (the standard used in the medical revocation proceeding) that, but for the error by the lawyer, he would have prevailed in his appeal. The discussion follows:

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On June 20, 2019, the Illinois Supreme Court decided an important case, Nichols v. Fahrenkamp, 2019 IL 123990 in which it held that a guardian ad litem (a lawyer appointed by a court to represent the interests of a minor child in a divorce case) is immune from suit for conduct related to his appointment.

There have been prior decisions granting immunity where the guardian was sued by one or more parents. This case is different because it expands the immunity significantly.

Nichols essentially alleged that Fahrenkamp did not prevent Nichols’ mother from misusing money that belonged to Nichols. The court relied upon a review of the Illinois Probate Act and the Illinois Dissolution of Marriage Act as well as cases from other states:

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A guardian ad litem is a lawyer who is appointed to represent the interests of a minor child in a divorce case. Often a divorce litigant comes to believe that the guardian ad litem is the cause of their problems. No matter how upset you may be, you cannot sue the guardian ad litem for legal malpractice. In Dubinsky v. Reich, 201 A.3d 1153 (2019) the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed the dismissal of a complaint against a guardian ad litem. The explanation:

The conduct that forms the basis of the plaintiff’s underlying claims is Reich’s recommendation to the court of supervised visitation between the plaintiff and his minor child, as well as her recommendation against the use of coparenting counseling. Reich made these recommendations to the court while fulfilling her statutorily prescribed duties as guardian ad litem to the plaintiff’s minor child.[8]The plaintiff has 1158*1158 not pointed to any actions taken by Reich outside of her role as guardian ad litem.[9] Therefore, Reich is entitled to absolute immunity.

The plaintiff further argues that “[p]ublic policy requires that the trial court recognize that there is a limitation to the actions of a [guardian ad litem]” and that “[t]he grant of immunity allows unchecked abuses of power by a [guardian ad litem].” We disagree. Granting absolute immunity to guardians ad litem is not contrary to public policy.[10] There are sufficient procedural safeguards to protect against improper conduct by a guardian ad litem. Because a guardian ad litem is appointed by the court, the guardian ad litem is subject to the court’s oversight and discretion and may be removed by the court at any time, either sua sponte or upon motion of a party. See Carrubba v. Moskowitz, supra, 274 Conn. at 543, 877 A.2d 773….

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This is a legal malpractice action arising out of a real estate purchase. Viktoriya Bakcheva retained the Law Offices of Stein & Associates to represent her in the purchase of a condominium unit. She alleged that the lawyers did not properly investigate the transaction because the Unit at issue had a second floor above the first floor. The problem – the second floor was not as described in the condominium documents or the certificate of occupancy. (It would appear that a prior owner of the unit had added an additional floor to the unit without obtaining a permit or the permission of the condominium association. As one might imagine, the lawyers’ motion for summary judgment was denied. They appealed and did no better in the Appellate Division.

The explanation:

We agree with the Supreme Court that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the legal malpractice cause of action. Although the defendants established their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact in opposition. Specifically, the plaintiff submitted evidence that she had informed the defendants, prior to the closing, that the main portion of the apartment was on the seventh floor of the building and that the apartment included a second level. According to the plaintiff, the defendants committed malpractice because they failed to recognize the illegality of the second level, since neither the certificate of occupancy nor the approved condominium offering plan authorized the existence of an eighth floor to the condominium (see id.).

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The case is pending in New York. A divorce firm sued its former client for fees. She promptly brought a legal malpractice claim. The trial court refused to dismiss the counterclaim. It held: “With respect to the proposed counterclaim for legal malpractice, defendant Ms. Parada alleges that as a result of plaintiff’s failure to complete certain tasks in the underlying divorce proceeding, Ms. Parada was forced to enter into an unfavorable settlement agreement with her ex-husband. Affirmation of Peter Hanschke dated February 26, 2019, Exh. C, ¶ 22. Although plaintiff argues that Ms. Parada’s allegations are speculative and that she will not be able to show that plaintiff’s actions caused Ms. Parada to enter into this agreement, it cannot be said at this stage that the proposed counterclaim is palpably insufficient or completely devoid of merit so as to warrant denial of her motion to amend. Cruz v. Brown, 129 A.D.3d 455, 456 (1st Dep’t 2015). Further, Ms. Parada provided a reasonable excuse for her delay in asserting this claim as the underlying divorce proceeding finally settled in December 2018 and defendant moved promptly thereafter to amend her counterclaims.”

Comment: My point here is that it if you sue for fees, you should expect to litigate a malpractice counterclaim every now and then. I make no comment on the merits of the allegations, which do appear quite speculative and difficult to prove.

See Davidoff Hutcher & Citron v. Maria Del Pilar Nava Parada, 2019 NY Slip Op 31121(U).