Published on:

This case (which is merely a complaint now that has not been proven) is a reminder that an attorney can be prosecuted by the ARDC for failing to safeguard client funds when he personally did not convert the funds. In this case, the allegations are that the lawyer’s partner converted funds and that the lawyer failed to prevent it. There are also allegations that suggest that the lawyer had reason to know that his partner might convert funds because he had converted funds in the past. The complaint alleges violations of Rule 1.15 and Rule 5.1(a). I have attached a link to the ARDC’s complaint. Again, the important thing to remember is that you can be prosecuted even if you did not convert funds.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

http://www.iardc.org/17PR0053CM.html

Published on:

This case is potentially important. It addresses a long-running issue – when a plaintiff must hire a legal malpractice expert. The Plaintiff must do so when expert testimony is needed to explain the standard of care to the jury. Here, the lawyer was hired to file a Medicaid application on behalf of an estate of a disabled person. The lawyer allegedly failed to file the application and the Estate was damaged. The trial court granted summary judgment on the basis that an expert was needed. The Appellate Court reversed because the only issue was an issue of fact: did the lawyer meet her obligations to file for Medicaid? The explanation of why the expert testimony was not necessary is particularly instructive and I quote it here:

There was an attorney-client relationship and a professional duty arising out of that relationship. The third element regarding the breach of duty is in dispute. The appellant did not provide expert testimony to substantiate her claim of legal malpractice regarding the third element. Flynn argues that Pollock’s errors were so obvious that expert testimony was not necessary to demonstrate that Pollock breached her duty. See, e.g., Friedland v. Djukic, 191 Ohio App.3d 278, 2010-Ohio-5777, 945 N.E.2d 1095, ¶ 27 (8th Dist.) (“Expert testimony is ordinarily required to establish the breach of duty in a legal malpractice case, unless the breach is within the ordinary knowledge of lay people”). We agree. Expert testimony as to the standard of care was not necessary because it is within the ordinary knowledge of lay people to determine whether there was a lack of communication between the parties and the lack of filing necessary paperwork could be a breach of duty. See, e.g., Phillips v. Courtney, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 84232, 2004-Ohio-6015 (expert testimony as to the standard of care was not necessary because it was within the common knowledge of the jurors whether the attorney ensured that the application was filed within two years of the client’s termination of employment).

{¶14} Like in Phillips, it does not require expert testimony to determine whether Pollock’s potential lack of communication or failure to file the Medicaid application could constitute a breach of duty. Either Pollock has evidence that she performed the duties she promised the Lankford family, or she does not. It’s a question of fact not law. The Lankford family claims that Pollock did not fulfill her duties as outlined in their agreement. At this juncture of the case, the issue does not lie within the complexities of Medicaid law or estate planning. The issue deals with a question of whether Pollock took any action as it relates to what was agreed upon in the engagement letter. An ordinary layperson can make a simple determination as to whether Pollock did any work for the Lankfords.

Published on:

This is case is worth reading because it involved a law firm that did legal work for a client for a period 12 years, but never billed the client. The firm claimed that it had entered into an oral agreement with the client to defer billing until a parcel of real property was sold. When the property was sold, the lawyers delivered a legal bill for $274,850.64 to the client.

One can speculate that the client, who had not received any bills before that time, was enraged to receive a huge bill after that amount of time. She refused to pay.

The firm sued for (a) breach of contract, and (b) equitable estoppel. The client filed a motion to dismiss the breach of contract claim based on the statute of limitations and the statute of frauds. The motion to dismiss was denied.

Published on:

This case is instructive for plaintiff lawyers because it is a reminder that, if the client has filed for bankruptcy, the claim for legal malpractice may belong to the bankruptcy estate. Because the alleged negligence occurred before the bankruptcy petition was filed, the claim belonged to the bankruptcy estate.

Source: LABGOLD v. REGENHARDT, Dist. Court, ED Virginia 2017 – Google Scholar

Published on:

Recent developments in the news have caused me to reflect on this topic. When should a lawyer make a memo to the file?

There are news stories that former FBI Director James Comey made memos to the file to report on conversations he had with President Trump. Comey made the memos because he was concerned that Trump was asking him to violate the law or engage in some form of corrupt activity.  Comey would have been very concerned that he would later be accused of engaging in some impropriety or that Trump would make some claim about their meeting that would contradict Comey’s recollection. Comey is also smart enough to know that he needed to keep a copy of the memo to the file in his own personal papers so that no neer-do-well could destroy it after he was terminated.

A memo to the file should be made (and preserved in a way that proves when it was created) whenever the client (a) indicates that he may not follow legal advice; (b) he announces an intention to violate the law; or (c) he does not appear to be telling the truth.

Published on:

Meisler was a “potential” beneficiary. She argued that the lawyer who drafted the estate planning documents committed legal malpractice because he did not include certain language in the estate planning documents. In some states a beneficiary can sue the lawyer who drafted estate planning documents. Ohio rejects this concept and holds that only a party in privity with the lawyer (usually the person who retained the lawyer) can file such a lawsuit. The problem is that the person who is in privity with the lawyer is usually deceased. In such cases, privity provides a complete defense to malpractice claims. The Ohio court notes that the executor of an estate might have standing to assert an error that diminished the value of the entire estate. However, the executor would not have standing to sue for an error that impacted the claim of one beneficiary.

The standing doctrine of the Ohio cases is, in my view, too narrow and is unfair to many estate beneficiaries. Obviously, this is an issue that is controversial.

Source: MEISLER v. Weinberg, 2017 Ohio 1563 – Ohio: Court of Appeals, 8th Appellate Dist. 2017 – Google Scholar

Published on:

Plaintiff and his wife entered into a post-nuptial agreement. They eventually retained a mediator to assist the negotiations. Plaintiff sued the mediator for legal malpractice. His case was dismissed because he had his own lawyers and because the mediator was not his attorney. The court explained:

Goldstein also produced documentary evidence that utterly refutes plaintiff’s claim that an attorney-client relationship existed. Plaintiff’s complaint (Goldstein’s counsel, exh A) attaches a copy of the post-nuptial agreement signed by both plaintiff and Comstock. Paragraph 1.1 of the post-nuptial agreement states that “Each party acknowledges that his or her separate legal counsel has examined the attached financial information, has advised him or her with respect to same, and that each party fully understands the contents of such financial information of the other” (id.). Paragraph 1.2 states that “Each party acknowledges that: (a) he or she has had legal counsel of his or her own selection who advised him or her fully with respect to his or her rights in and to the property and income of the other and with respect to the effect of this Agreement and that such party understands such advice” (id.).

This agreement makes clear that each party consulted with his or her own attorney before signing the agreement. Further, plaintiff’s complaint supports this conclusion. Plaintiff alleges that defendants Fleischer and Berkman Bottger (the firm) were retained by plaintiff on or about March 22, 2013 to “review the Post-Nuptial Agreement drafted by Defendant Lori H. Goldstein” (plaintiff’s complaint ¶ 51). Clearly, plaintiff did have his own individual counsel review the agreement before he signed it.

Published on:

The underlying case was routine and it arose out of an automobile accident. The defendant lawyers filed suit timely as to most of the defendants, but they failed to file a timely case as to one defendant. The underlying case settled for $10,000.

The lawyers won a summary judgment motion in the trial court, but summary judgment was reversed. The plaintiff had submitted sufficient evidence of a breach of duty (missing the statute of limitations) that caused damage to the plaintiff.

Source: ATIENCIA v. PINCZEWSKI, 2017 NY Slip Op 1839 – NY: Appellate Div., 2nd Dept. 2017 – Google Scholar

Published on:

This case, while not discussing legal malpractice, is worth considering. The plaintiff, an administrator of an estate, filed a pro se wrongful death lawsuit against medical providers. It was undisputed that the pro se complaint was filed within the applicable statute of limitations period. After the statute of limitations ran, plaintiff retained a lawyer who filed an amended complaint. The Nebraska courts, in harsh rulings, dismissed the amended complaint. The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the dismissal.

Why was the case dismissed if it was timely filed? The courts found that the pro se complaint was a nullity because it was not filed by an attorney. The court acknowledged the result was a harsh one, but essentially said it was too bad.

In my opinion, this ruling is unduly formalistic and old-fashioned. It is also poorly reasoned given the harm to plaintiff and the given the fact that the defendants were put on notice during the limitations period. In other words, a technical violation defeated a potentially valid lawsuit.

Published on:

The case involves a fee dispute between a law firm and its former clients. The law firm took the underlying case on a contingent fee basis. The law firm inserted the following provision in its engagement letter, which requires arbitration of any fee disputes:

4. FEE ON TERMINATION. If Client terminates Firm’s employment before, conclusion of the case without good cause, Client shall pay Firm a fee and expenses based on the fair and reasonable value of the services performed by Firm before termination. If any disagreement arises about the termination fee, the client may choose two persons from a service profession, and the firm may choose one person. The firm will be bound by a majority decision of the three persons as to a fair fee. If the Firm terminates the representation, then it shall receive no fee or expenses.

The plaintiff law firm was terminated after it had received settlement offers from the other parties in the underlying lawsuit. (It is likely the lawyers felt that they had been unfairly terminated where they had been on the brink of achieving a settlement for their client).