Articles Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

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This case is captioned Khoury v. Kathleen Niew, Stanley Niew, and Niew Legal Partners, 2021 IL App (2d) 200388. Kathleen Niew converted funds of the plaintiffs that were held in her firm’s trust account. The only issue on appeal was whether the trial court properly held that Stanley Niew also had a fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs. The Appellate Court reversed the judgment and held that Stanley Niew did not owe a fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs. The court’s reasoning is important for all lawyers to read and understand:

¶47 Plaintiffs do not contend that they had a fiduciary relationship with Stanley as a matter of law based on an attorney-client relationship. This is wise, as the formation of an attorney-client relationship is a consensual relationship in which the attorney must indicate acceptance to work on behalf of the client, and the client must authorize the attorney to work on their behalf. …The record shows that plaintiffs and Stanley barely communicated at all, much less demonstrated a consensual relationship for Stanley to work on their behalf. Plaintiffs admit that they never spoke with Stanley via phone, e-mail, or text and at most Jamal could recall three short interatctions, which can be fairly described as small talk.The record does not support that Stanley ever agreed to perform work on their behalf, performed work on their behalf, or billed them for his services.

The court held that there was no attorney-client relationship with Stanley and held that the trial court erred in failing to grant summary judgment on his behalf.

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It is generally well-settled that a party cannot sue the laywer who represents an opposing party. In the case Hitchcock v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company, (M.D. Florida) (6:18-cv-1986-ORL-28TBS), Hitchcock sued USAA after a she became subject to a large judgment in a personal injury action. She alleged that USAA should have settled the case within the policy limits. What makes her case interesting is that she also tried to sue USAA’s lawyers. The court dismissed that action on the ground that there was no attorney-client relationship between Hitchcock and the law firm. Nor was Hitchcock an intended third-party beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

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One question that comes up over and over again is “How do I prove that the lawyer (who I am unhappy with) was my lawyer?” How do I demonstrate an attorney-client relationship.

This video has some basic thoughts on that issue:

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The case is GB v. Christine Rossi, A-240-17T3. The case was decided in New Jersey and is an unpublished opinion. The case illustrates one problem with legal malpractice cases – there may be wrongful conduct, but the plaintiff must tie the wrongful conduct to her damages.

Plaintiff was getting divorced.   She met with Rossi for about an hour and made numerous disclosures. Rossi declined representation.

Later, plaintiff’s husband filed for a temporary restraining order against plaintiff alleging that she had committed domestic violence. At trial, Rossi represented husband. Husband won the trial and GB was evicted from the marital home. Please note that Rossi did not file an appearance in the divorce case. She only appeared in the domestic violence case.

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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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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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Sandler was a plaintiff in an underlying medical malpractice action in which he alleged that he received substandard care at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. Advocate retained a standard of care witness who testified against him. Sandler, even though he won the underlying case, sued Advocate’s expert on the ground that the expert failed to diagnose his brain injury. The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that there was no doctor-patient relationship and no duty of care. The Appellate Court affirmed, but on different reasoning. The Appellate Court reasoned that a statement by an opposing expert in a report or deposition was absolutely privileged. For many years courts have recognized that a lay witness is immune from liability for his pertinent testimony at trial. The relevant caselaw, quoted in Sandler, is as follows: “As a general rule, witnesses enjoy an absolute privilege from civil suit for statements made during judicial proceedings. Ritchey v. Maksin, 71 Ill. 2d 470, 476 (1978). The purpose of the rule is to preserve the integrity of the judicial process by encouraging full and frank testimony. Layne v. Builders Plumbing Supply Co.,210 Ill. App. 3d 966, 969 (1991). ” Sandler ¶ 26.

Source: Sandler v. Sweet, 2017 IL App (1st) 163313 – Ill: Appellate Court, 1st Dist., 6th Div. 2017 – Google Scholar

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This issue comes up fairly frequently and almost all of the courts which have considered it have answered it the exact same way. An owner of a unit of a condominium does not have standing to sue the attorney for the condominium association.

The lawyer for the association is responsible to the association’s board of directors, not the unit owners. Allowing random unit owners to sue the lawyer for the association would place the lawyer in a situation where he would have to serve numerous “clients” all of whom have conflicting interests.

Source: GUEHL v. CARILLON HOUSE ASSN., INC., 2017 Ohio 5491 – Ohio: Court of Appeals, 2nd Appellate Dist. 2017 – Google Scholar

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The case is an important one for lawyers who are faced with an ethical issue. The New York Appellate Division held that the attorneys may communicate with their law firm’s general counsel to seek ethical advice and those communications are privileged and are not subject to discovery. In Stock, the lawyers were representing Stock in an arbitration hearing when one of the lawyers was called as a witness. The lawyers communicated with the firm’s general counsel and sought legal advice.

Stock later sued the law firm, claiming that the law firm gave negligence advice concerning his termination by MasterCard. In particular, Stock alleged that the firm failed to advise him that termination would accelerate the expiration of vested stock options.

In the lawsuit, Stock served discovery and sought disclosure of the communications between the lawyers who were representing him and the law firm’s general counsel. The court held that the attorney-client privilege applied and that the law firm was not required to disclose the communications.

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Source: OAKLAND POLICE AND FIRE RETIREMENT SYSTEM v. MAYER BROWN, LLP, Dist. Court, ND Illinois 2016 – Google Scholar

This is a legal malpractice case that was dismissed because the plaintiff was not a client of Mayer Brown, LLP, a noted Chicago law firm. The plaintiff was part of a group of institutions that made a loan to General Motors before GM filed bankruptcy. Mayer Brown allegedly drafted documents which released certain UCC security interests and allegedly caused harm to the plaintiffs.

The facts of the various transactions are complex. I will do my best to accurately summarize them.

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