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One issue that arises every year is whether or not the plaintiff must submit the testimony of an expert witness to meet his or her burden of proof. All 50 states require a plaintiff to submit expert testimony to prove legal malpractice.  The expert witness requirement serves to eliminate cases where no attorney will opine that the conduct of the defendant was negligent.

Sometimes a plaintiff will use a different legal theory. Instead of malpractice the plaintiff will argue that the lawyer breached a fiduciary duty.  In Mittelstaedt v. Henney, 954 NS 2d 852 (Minnesota Court of Appeals 2021), the court held that the requirement for expert testimony does apply in a breach of fiduciary duty case as well as a malpractice case. The court also rejected the argument that the malpractice was so apparent that no expert testimony was required.

If you have a question about legal malpractice, do not hesitate to contact us.

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In Walker v. Shaevitz & Shaevitz, 2021 NY Slip Op 1799 (Appellate Division Second Department) the court affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice claim where the plaintiff attempted to create an issue of fact with her testimony. The problem for the plaintiff was that her testimony in the legal malpractice case contradicted her testimony in the underlying case. Result: summary judgment for defendant. The court found that the contradictory testimony was insufficient to create an issue of fact.

Should you have a question concerning a legal malpractice issue, do not hesitate to contact us.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

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Scarola Malone & Zubatov LLP v. Ellner, 2021 NY Slip Op 31199(U), April 8, 2021 (Supreme Court New York County) began with a lawsuit for legal fees against a client who declined to pay. The Defendant then filed a counterclaim alleging legal malpractice. The counterclaims alleged that the law firm made several errors in representing the defendants in civil litigation essentially by refusing to accept a buyout or settlement of the underlying litigation. The court dismissed the legal malpractice counterclaim on the ground that Ellner was sophisticated and imposed his strategic plan for the case on the lawyers. The lawyers exercised judgment and did not commit malpractice.

The reasoning:

Where a sophisticated client imposes a strategic decision on counsel, the client’s action absolves the attorney from liability for malpractice (Town of North Hempstead v Winston & Strawn, LLP, 28 AD3d 746 [2006]; Stolmeier v Fields, 280 AD2d 342 [2001]). Additionally, with regard to strategic decisions “the selection of one among several reasonable courses of action does not constitute malpractice” (Rosner v Paley, 65 NY2d 736, 738 [1985]). “Attorneys may select among reasonable courses of action in prosecuting their clients’ cases without thereby committing malpractice … so that a purported malpractice claim that amounts only to a client’s criticism of counsel’s strategy may be dismissed” (Dweck Law Firm, LLP v Mann, 283 AD2d 292, 293 [2001]). Hindsight arguments concerning selection of one of several reasonable courses of action do not state a viable cause of action for malpractice (Brookwood Cos., Inc. v Alston & Bird LLP, 146 AD3d 662, 667 [2017]).

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The Illinois Appellate Court recently decided Rosenberger v. Meltzer, Purtill & Steele, LLC, 2021 IL App (1st) 200414-U. Rosenberger hired the Defendant Law Firm to represent him in connection with the negotiation of an employment contract with CenTrust. CenTrust had entered into an operating agreement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Rosenberger was hired on February 1, 2012. His agreement provided for a three-year employment term with a base salary of $200,000 per year. The agreement also contained a clause providing for severance compensation which provided that:

“If this Agreement is terminated by the Company prior to the expiration of the Employment Period for any reason other than Cause,… then the Employee shall be entitled to receive in a single payment…an amount equals to two times his annual base salary then in effect.” The Agreement also contained section 28, titled Regulatory Suspension and Termination. That section provided that if the employee was “suspended from office and/or temporarily prohibited from participant in the conduct of the affairs of Employer by a notice served under Section 8(e)(3) …of the FDIA [Federal Deposit Insurance Act], Employer’s obligations under this agreement shall be suspended as of the date of service.”

CenTrust terminated Rosenberger on November 5, 2013 and refused to make any severance payment to Rosenberger on the ground that he had been terminated for cause and because OCC would not approve such a payment.

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In Illinois, there are two parts to the statute of limitations.  First, you have two years from the time you discover your injury to sue a lawyer. Second, you cannot sue the lawyer based on an action that he took more than 6 years prior to the date you file your case.  The two-year and six-year rules prevent many malpractice plaintiffs from suing. They also protect lawyers who gave advice long ago, when the law may have been different.

Saunders v. Hedrick, 20 C 6835 (N.D. IL) decided on February 18, 2021, is a classic example of how these statutes work in practice.  Saunders was fired from his job as a corrections officer in 2010. He retained Hedrick who negotiated a settlement for him in 2012. In 2020, Saunders discovered that because he took a settlement his pension would be reduced. He then sued Hedrick for legal malpractice. The court held the case was time-barred because the advice to settle was given in 2012, about 8 years before the lawsuit was filed.  Saunders argued that the lawyer fraudulently concealed the error from him. The court rejected that argument because Saunders was unable to plead any false representation by Hedrick that could form the basis of fraudulent concealment.  Result: case dismissed.

If you have question about a legal malpractice case, do not hesitate to contact us at 312-357-1515.

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Patent malpractice claims are a rare, but growing area of legal malpractice. However, in Morgan & Mendel Genomics v. Amster Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, 2021 NY Slip Op 30465, the trial court dismissed a patent malpractice claim because the client failed to give correct information to the law firm.

The facts:

On October 15, 2012, Einstein asked the Defendant to help obtain patent protection for its new discovery (id., ¶ 23). When the Defendant asked Einstein, their own client, for the publication date of the Article, Einstein advised that it was first published in March 2012 (id. 26). This was however incorrect. In fact, although the Defendant learned that the Article had appeared online on January 11, 2012 and emailed Dr. Ostrer and Mr. Loke on November 26, 2012 to advise them of the same, the article was first published in an “Early View” service on December 15, 2011 (id., 18-20, 29). Subsequently, the Defendant filed a provisional patent application on January 8, 2013 and a non-provisional application on January 8, 2014 (the Application) (id., ¶¶ 36-37)…..

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One common issue that can trip up a litigant is the failure to disclose a civil lawsuit in a bankruptcy petition. The lawsuit is an asset of the bankruptcy estate. Failing to disclose the existence of the lawsuit can lead to the dismissal of the civil lawsuit. In Horvath v. Budin, Reisman, Kupferberg & Bernstein, LLP, 2021 N.Y. 30105 (U), the trial court (referred to in New York as the Supreme Court) denied the law firm’s motion to dismiss in just such a case.

After his civil lawsuit was dismissed for failure to include it as an asset of the bankruptcy estate, Horvath sued the law firm for negligence.  The summary of the facts indicates that the civil lawsuit was not disclosed until after Horvath’s Chapter 13 plan was confirmed.

In 2009, plaintiff filed a Chapter 13 Petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey (“the Bankruptcy Court”) under Case No. 09-38537-KCF. Doc. 22. Plaintiff was represented in the bankruptcy proceeding by Jules Rossi, Esq. Doc. 22. On September 15, 2010, plaintiff was allegedly injured while he was a passenger in an elevator in a building in Manhattan. Doc. 21 at par. 4. Plaintiff thereafter retained the Law Offices of Michael Lamonsoff (“Lamonsoff”) to commence a personal injury action on his behalf against Gumley Haft Kleier Inc. (“GHK”) and Eltech Industries (“Eltech”). The action against GHK and Eltech was commenced in the Supreme Court, Bronx County in 2010 under Index Number 310013/10 (“the Bronx County action”). Doc. 17 at par. 16. Lamonsoff also represented plaintiff in an unrelated personal injury action commenced in New York County in 2010 under Index Number 115395/10 (“the New York County action”). Doc. 17 at par. 17.

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In Amari v. Griffin, 5:20-cv-00050 (W.D. Virginia January 27, 2021), the district court denied an attorney’s motion to dismiss a divorce malpractice case.  Amari argued that her former attorney in her divorce case (Griffin) failed to properly investigate her ex-husband’s assets and failed to retain appropriate experts. This is, in my experience, a typical divorce malpractice claim.

In his motion to dismiss Griffin argued that because Amari signed the divorce decree that estopped her from claiming that her lawyer committed legal malpractice. The Court rejected that argument:

Griffin argues that Count I, Roseanne’s claim for legal malpractice, is barred by collateral estoppel. (Dkt. No. 7 at 24-25.) Griffin claims that because Roseanne signed the divorce decree and the property settlement agreement during the divorce proceedings, issue preclusion bars her from bringing a legal malpractice claim. (Id. at 26.)

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If you believe you have been harmed by the actions of an attorney, here are some questions we would need the answers to before we could decide whether or not to take your case.

  1. Who is the lawyer or law firm that you believe committed malpractice?
  2. Were you a client of that law firm? Often the defendant will argue that the claimant was not a client of his firm. What evidence do you have to show that there was an attorney-client relationship? Did the lawyer prepare an engagement letter? Did you sign the letter?
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One of the major barriers to success in a legal malpractice case is the requirement to obtain an expert. The expert, usually a lawyer or professor, can offer testimony on how the conduct at issue did not meet the standard of care. Conversely, the defense expert will testify that the lawyer’s conduct met the standard of care. You may believe that your lawyer breached the duty of care but you need an expert to satisfy the court that you can meet your burden of proof.  The expert witness must also offer testimony that the breach caused some damage to the client. The expert need not be a damages expert, but he must testify that the breach of duty caused some economic harm to the client.

There are a few rare cases where legal malpractice can be established without an expert, but such cases are highly unusual.

When we review cases we often try to determine in advance if an expert in the area (family law, appellate law, etc.) would be able to offer testimony that the lawyer’s conduct breached the standard of care. If we cannot obtain such testimony, we will not go forward with the case.

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