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One issue that arises frequently in legal malpractice cases is – to whom does the lawyer owe a duty? Here, a condominium owner sued the lawyer for the condominium association for breach of contract. The court dismissed the case and the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal.

The Colorado Supreme Court followed well-settled law in holding that the association’s lawyer owed no duty to an individual condominium owner. The lawyer represents the association, an organization composed of individual members. Just because a condominium owner is a member of that group does not create an attorney-client relationship.

The Court reasoned that any other holding would hurt the lawyer’s duty of loyalty to his client, the Association. Further, allowing the lawsuit to proceed would allow “an unforeseeable and unlimited number of people” to make claims against lawyers.

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The case is captioned William Molim Siu v. The Cavanagh Law Firm, 1-CA-CV 17-0601 (Arizona Court of Appeals).

Siu sued his former lawyer for alleged negligence in handling Siu’s divorce case. The divorce case was heard by an Arbitrator who ruled that certain property owned by Siu before the marriage became community property when it was deposited in joint accounts. Siu tried to appeal but his appeal [of the underlying case] was dismissed. Siu alleged that his lawyer had (a) contracted away his right to appeal, and (b) failed to retain a forensic accounting expert.

Cavanagh moved for summary judgment and his motion was granted. Siu appealed. The Court of Appeals found that there was “substantial evidence to support the Arbitrator’s decision [in the underlying divorce case.]” Therefore, Siu could not prove that any error by the lawyer was the proximate cause of his alleged loss.

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One question which comes up frequently is whether a client can sue his former lawyer for legal malpractice based on what the client believes is an inflated legal bill.

A legal fee dispute is essentially a breach of contract case filed by the lawyer against the former client. Here the specific complaint was that the lawyer did not explain that, under the fee agreement, the lawyer was not required to refund any portion of the client’s deposit.

“Plaintiff next argues defendants breached a fiduciary duty to plaintiff by failing to properly advise him as to the non-refundable aspect of the retainer agreement. “In entering a contract at the outset of a representation, the lawyer must explain the basis and rate of the fee . . . and advise the client of such matters as conflicts of interest, the scope of the representation, and the contract’s implications for the client. . . .” Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 18 cmt. d (Am. Law Inst. 2000). RPC 1.4(c) states, “A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

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An estate hired a lawyer to act as the co-executor of the estate. The lawyer was paid on a percentage basis – 3% of the gross amount of the Estate. (In Illinois this type of payment arrangement is illegal. However, in Kentucky is it is perfectly legal). Of note is that the maximum fee in Kentucky is 5% – the lawyer only charged 3%. For those with an understanding of economics, that would indicate a working market in Kentucky where there is bargaining power on both sides of the transaction. In addition, the lawyer’s firm charged over one million in legal fees to the estate. These were apparently hourly charges.

As a result of the fee agreement, the lawyer/executor collected a large fee, in excess of $300,000. The executor then sued the lawyer for legal malpractice for charging excessive fees. (The executor could not sue for breach of contract because the lawyer complied with the terms of the contract and the court approved the payments).

Result: summary judgment for the lawyer. This passage of the opinion sets out the key issues in the dispute:

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The law firm inserted a fee-shifting clause in its retainer agreement, providing that the “prevailing party” was entitled to attorney fees. The text of the clause is as follows: “”In the event of a dispute between you and the firm regarding any matters relating to the retention . . ., the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees” (emphasis added)”

This clause was no doubt intended to allow the lawyers to recover their collection costs in fee litigation. However, because the jury found that they committed malpractice (the opinion does not explain why), the jury awarded plaintiff her attorney fees. The trial court struck the fee award but the Appellate Division reinstated the fee award.

Comment: Lawyers should be cautious before inserting fee-shifting language in fee agreements.

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Sometimes things get missed or lost in the shuffle when clients change lawyers. It is often difficult to get the new lawyer up to speed in time to get a case ready for dispositive motions or trial.  When I see that the client had numerous lawyers involved in a case, that is usually a good signal that the case cannot be won. Each lawyer will blame another lawyer and its tough for the plaintiff to recover. You can sue everybody, but you will be subject to motions to dismiss and separate defenses.

This is a legal malpractice case recognizing the successor counsel defense. Ryan was represented by the Simmons firm in certain litigation. It was undisputed that they withdrew before the statute of limitations on some of Ryan’s claims ran. Successor counsel appeared 13 weeks before the pleadings closed in the litigation. The court quotes the law, which is well-settled:

Our supreme court has acknowledged the rule that “[a]n attorney cannot be held liable for failing to file an action prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations if he ceased to represent the client and was replaced by other counsel before the statute ran on the client’s action.” Ruden v. Jenk, 543 N.W.2d 605, 612 (Iowa 1996) (quoting Steketee v. Lintz, Williams & Rothberg, 694 P.2d 1153, 1159 (Cal. 1985)). Other courts have further explained the effect of successor counsel in legal malpractice claims. See Norton v. Sperling Law Office, P.C., 437 F. Supp. 2d 398, 402-03 (D. Md. 2006). The actions of successor counsel may create “an intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation arising from the prior attorney’s negligence.” Id. at 402. In order to rely on this rule, the prior attorney must show “a sufficiently long time gap between the severing of the attorney-client relationship and the lapse of the statute of limitations.” Id. at 403. “Courts have not set a minimum baseline for what constitutes `sufficient time,’ although one court has deemed as little as thirty days sufficient.” Id. (citing Sherotov v. Capoccia, 555 N.Y.S.2d 918 (App. Div. 1990)); but see id. at 403 (finding ten weeks was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a personal injury case where the proper forum was not clear); Villarreal v. Cooper, 673 S.W.2d 631 (Tex. App. 1984)(finding seventy-seven days was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a tort case when prior counsel had the case for sixteen months and evidence and witnesses could no longer be located).

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The case is Bar Counsel v. Peter Farber, SJC 11171 (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court).  This post is a repeat from a few years ago. I regard the opinion highly and think every lawyer should read it before taking any action adverse to an unhappy client.

Farber was the subject of an attorney disciplinary complaint. The complaining party, G. Russell Damon, testified against Farber. Damon accused Farber of wrongful conduct in connection with a real estate transaction. The disciplinary proceeding resulted in a reprimand against Farber.

Farber then brought a defamation case against Damon. Damon argued that he was immune because he testified under oath in a public proceeding. Damon took no other action to publicize his testimony.

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The Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court has censured a prosecutor who obtained the conviction of three defendants in a murder case. While appeals were pending, the prosecutor wrote a book about the prosecution. Two of the Defendants filed motions for a new trial, alleging that the book demonstrated that there was exculpatory evidence that was not turned over to them before trial. The Board concluded that the lawyer violated Rule 1.8 (conflict of interest) by obtaining a personal benefit from writing the book and Rule 8.4(d) prejudice to the administration of justice.

The lawyer may have avoided some of the ethical problems had he waited ten years after the last appeal was decided.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

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The polarization of politics in our country has caused an attorney to try to compel the Maryland Grievance Commission to investigate attorneys who represented Hillary Clinton. An attorney, Ty Clevenger, believed that three Maryland attorneys who represented Hillary Clinton had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. He wrote to the Grievance Commission but the Commission closed the investigation because Mr. Clevenger had no personal knowledge of the alleged unethical conduct. Undeterred by that decision, Clevenger then filed a Mandamus Action in the trial court to require the Grievance Commission to investigate the attorneys.  The trial court ordered the Grievance Commission to investigate the complaint. As the court explains:

This case began when the Appellee, Ty Clevenger, submitted to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland a complaint alleging professional misconduct by three Maryland-barred attorneys while they were representing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Office of Bar Counsel thereafter informed Mr. Clevenger that it would not undertake an investigation of the allegations in his complaint because he had no personal knowledge of the allegations presented and was not an aggrieved party or client…….

On December 20, 2016, Mr. Clevenger, proceeding without the assistance of a Maryland-barred attorney, filed in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County a Petition for Writ of Mandamus (“Petition”). He sought to have the circuit court compel Bar Counsel to conduct an investigation, arguing that then-effective Maryland Rule 19-711 required Bar Counsel to investigate every complaint that was not facially frivolous or unfounded. The Commission moved to dismiss the Petition for lack of jurisdiction, among other grounds. It asserted that the Court of Appeals retains original and complete jurisdiction over all attorney disciplinary matters.

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In a malpractice case, the plaintiff must show that the lawyer breached the standard of care and that the lawyer’s error cost the client money. In most cases, the only way to prove this is to examine the underlying case. The underlying case is the prior case that was handled by the lawyer who allegedly breached the standard of care.

Because underlying cases can come in a variety of disciplines, we have to learn how to analyze (and sometimes prove-up) the allegations of the underlying case.

An example would be a personal injury case that was dismissed because the lawyer missed the statute of limitations. To prove that the error caused the client to lose the case, we must show that the underlying personal injury case had merit and prove the allegations contained in that case. If the underlying case was not well-founded, the lawyer’s error did not cause the loss. The client would have lost the case anyway.