This is another very important and recurring issue in the legal malpractice field. Most states have a rule that provides that a criminal defendant cannot sue his former attorney unless he establishes that he is actually innocent. Texas prefers the term “exoneration.” This year the Texas Supreme Court, in Gray v. Skelton, No. 18-0386, held that a criminal defendant can sue her lawyer once her conviction is vacated. During the malpractice case, however, she must demonstrate that she was innocent.
Patricia Skelton was an attorney who was convicted of fraud for allegedly altering a will. (She apparently cut and pasted signatures from one version of the will which had been damaged by water to another version printed out of a computer) After her conviction the probate court hearing the estate case found that there was no alteration of the terms of the will. Eventually Ms. Skelton was able to get her criminal conviction vacated. She then sued her criminal defense attorney for legal malpractice. The lower courts dismissed her case, but the Texas Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the case. The opinion discusses prior Texas decisions and then provides a legal definition of “exoneration.” The discussion is quoted below:
Under the now so-called Peeler [v. Hughes and Luce, 909 S.W. 2d 494 (Texas 1995)\ doctrine, convicts may not sue their criminal-defense attorneys for malpractice unless “they have been exonerated on direct appeal, through post-conviction relief, or otherwise.” Id. at 498. This is so, the Peeler plurality explained, because “allowing civil recovery for convicts impermissibly shifts responsibility for the crime away from the convict.” Id. Without this rule, malpractice claims brought by convicted criminals would “drastically diminish[ ] the consequences of the convicts’ criminal conduct and seriously undermine[ ] our system of criminal justice.” Id. And as the plurality also noted, permitting a convicted criminal to recover damages through a legal-malpractice claim would allow that criminal “to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found a claim upon his iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime.” Id. at 497 (quoting State ex rel. O’Blennis v. Adolf, 691 S.W.2d 498, 504 (Mo. Ct. App. 1985)).