Articles Posted in Divorce Malpractice

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The case, Nancy Setterquist v. Law Offices of Ted D. Billbe, P.C., N0. 18-35880, is an unpublished decision of the Ninth Circuit that raises important issues. The case is a divorce malpractice case. Setterquist alleged that her lawyer allowed the court to enter an erroneous order. Based on the text of that order, her ex-husband filed a post-decree claim against her for maintenance and was able to recover. The facts are not summarized well in the opinion, unfortunately, leaving me with questions about what happened and why it happened.

The defense strategy was to move to dismiss on the basis that Setterquist engaged a new lawyer post-decree. The defense argued in a motion to dismiss that successor counsel could have corrected the error made by Billbe and defeated ex-husband’s claims.

The district court dismissed the case on the basis that Setterquist could not allege proximate causation because she employed successor counsel.

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In Flusser v. Bikel, 2019 NY Slip Op 32847(U), the plaintiff was involved in a contentious divorce. She discharged one firm and then hired the Defendant law firm (Bikel v. Mandarano) to represent her. At the conclusion of the divorce case, Plaintiff filed a legal malpractice claim against the Defendant law firm. In her complaint Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants had failed to sue prior counsel for alleged malpractice by those lawyers during the divorce case.

The Defendants responded that they had entered into an engagement agreement with Plaintiff under which Defendants representation would be limited to two areas:  “(i) “the prosecution or defense of a divorce action;” and (ii) “the prosecution or defense of a Family Court proceeding concerning custody, visitation and support proceedings, including the attempt to negotiate a resolution of the matter.'”

The trial court dismissed the legal malpractice action on the ground that the Defendants were not retained to investigate or prosecute a legal malpractice claim: The reasoning:

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One of the more common issues that arise in a legal malpractice case is when did the claim arise? In Schwab v. Zarhadnik, 18-1118, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that a divorce malpractice claim accrued on the date of the divorce decree. Plaintiff alleged that her attorney failed to pursue certain claims in the divorce proceeding, including a medical malpractice claim filed by husband after the divorce. The Court of Appeals held that Schwab had no claim and that, even if she did have a claim. the claim was barred by the five-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice. The discussion:

In order to determine when Schwab’s damages occurred, we must determine how Schwab was injured. Settlement payments received before dissolution are marital property. In re Marriage of Schriner, 695 N.W.2d 493, 497 (Iowa 2005). “The proceeds of a personal injury claim are divided according to the circumstances of each case.” In re Marriage of Plasencia, 541 N.W.2d 923, 926 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995) (citing In re Marriage of McNerney, 417 N.W.2d 205, 206 (Iowa 1987)). Settlement proceeds do not automatically belong to either party. McNerney, 417 N.W.2d at 208. Rights not specifically preserved in the dissolution decree are forfeited. Iowa Code § 598.20 (2009); see also Plasencia, 541 N.W.2d at 926. Moreover, benefits and proceeds received after a divorce is final are the separate property of the injured spouse. In re Marriage of Schmitt, No. 15-1207, 2016 WL 3556462, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. June 29, 2016). We have held a spouse does not have “a right to any part of a future recovery made after the dissolution.” In re Marriage of Jervik, No. 15-0766, 2016 WL 5930425, at *7 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2016).

Even if we found Schwab had a right to a part of Musel’s recovery and found Zahradnik violated a duty to Schwab in failing to preserve that right, the statute of limitations would bar Schwab’s claim against Zahradnik. The dissolution decree was entered in 2009, more than five years before Schwab commenced this action on January 5, 2017. Therefore Iowa Code section 614.1(4) bars Schwab’s action unless a legal doctrine tolls the limitations period. See Skadburg, 911 N.W.2d at 793.

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A guardian ad litem is a lawyer who is appointed to represent the interests of a minor child in a divorce case. Often a divorce litigant comes to believe that the guardian ad litem is the cause of their problems. No matter how upset you may be, you cannot sue the guardian ad litem for legal malpractice. In Dubinsky v. Reich, 201 A.3d 1153 (2019) the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed the dismissal of a complaint against a guardian ad litem. The explanation:

The conduct that forms the basis of the plaintiff’s underlying claims is Reich’s recommendation to the court of supervised visitation between the plaintiff and his minor child, as well as her recommendation against the use of coparenting counseling. Reich made these recommendations to the court while fulfilling her statutorily prescribed duties as guardian ad litem to the plaintiff’s minor child.[8]The plaintiff has 1158*1158 not pointed to any actions taken by Reich outside of her role as guardian ad litem.[9] Therefore, Reich is entitled to absolute immunity.

The plaintiff further argues that “[p]ublic policy requires that the trial court recognize that there is a limitation to the actions of a [guardian ad litem]” and that “[t]he grant of immunity allows unchecked abuses of power by a [guardian ad litem].” We disagree. Granting absolute immunity to guardians ad litem is not contrary to public policy.[10] There are sufficient procedural safeguards to protect against improper conduct by a guardian ad litem. Because a guardian ad litem is appointed by the court, the guardian ad litem is subject to the court’s oversight and discretion and may be removed by the court at any time, either sua sponte or upon motion of a party. See Carrubba v. Moskowitz, supra, 274 Conn. at 543, 877 A.2d 773….

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The case is Knox v. Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, 2018 NY Slip Op 9030. The plaintiff was represented in her divorce by two law firms and she sued both firms in this legal malpractice case. Plaintiff lost a custody fight with her ex-husband and was ordered to pay attorney fees when she failed to comply with a court order to return the child to New York from Connecticut. She sued the Aronson firm for bad advice (alleged) and for failing to move for attorney fees. The reasoning is instructive:

Turning first to plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action against AMS, she alleges that AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, resulting in her failure to receive an undetermined award to pay her attorneys. This claim fails because plaintiff’s various successor counsel had ample time and opportunity to make such a motion, and in fact one did (although it was purportedly abandoned) (see Davis v Cohen & Gresser, LLP, 160 AD3d 484, 487 [1st Dept 2018]).

Even assuming AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, by agreeing as part of the settlement[2] to forgo any award of attorneys’ fees except for $20,000, plaintiff cannot show that but for AMS’s negligence she would not have sustained the loss (see generally Tydings v Greenfield, Stein & Senior, LLP,43 AD3d 680, 682 [1st Dept 2007], affd 11 NY3d 195 [2008] [to establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must demonstrate that “but for” the attorney’s negligence, plaintiff would have prevailed in the matter in question; failure to demonstrate proximate cause mandates the dismissal of a legal malpractice action regardless of whether the attorney was negligent]); 180 Ludlow Dev. LLC v Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP, 165 AD3d 594, 595 [1st Dept 2018] [“While proximate cause is generally a question for the factfinder. . . it can, in appropriate circumstances, be determined as a matter of law”]).

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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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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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The case is Holtzman v. Griffith, 2018 NY Slip Op 04540, decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department.

Holtzman sued for fees and his former client, Griffith, counterclaimed for legal malpractice. The trial court on the basis of an account stated ordered Griffith to pay the legal fees that were due. The trial court dismissed Griffith’s malpractice claim because he had voluntarily settled the underlying divorce case and had agreed that the settlement was fair and equitable.  The explanation:

The plaintiff’s submissions demonstrated that in representing the defendant, who was also the defendant in the divorce action, she exercised the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession, and that the stipulation of settlement executed by the defendant in the divorce action was not the product of any mistakes by the plaintiff (see Schiff v Sallah Law Firm, P.C.,128 AD3d 668, 669). The stipulation of settlement recited, among other things, that the defendant reviewed and understood its terms, had an opportunity to consult with counsel and have the legal and practical effect of the stipulation fully explained to him, executed the stipulation voluntarily, without coercion or pressure of any kind, and believed the stipulation to be fair and reasonable (see Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield, LLP v Wilson, 136 AD3d 1326, 1328Schiff v Sallah Law Firm, P.C., 128 AD3d at 669). In opposition, the defendant failed to raise a triable issue of fact.

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Judicial estoppel is a doctrine that penalizes a litigant who takes one position in one lawsuit and a contrary position in another lawsuit. In other words, the litigant’s position shifts based on the litigant’s interests in a particular case. Kershaw v. Levy, Tennessee Court of Appeals, No. M2017-01129-COA-R3-CV., is a divorce malpractice case where the plaintiff’s claims against her former lawyer ran into the judicial estoppel doctrine. The lawyer entered the divorce case and Kershaw was promptly held in contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Later, the lawyer settled the divorce case and obtained an order vacating the contempt finding.  When Ms. Kershaw sued him for legal malpractice the lawyer filed a motion arguing that she was judicially estopped from bringing claims based on the divorce settlement.

The court summarizes the judicial estoppel argument in this fashion:

On March 1, 2017, Mr. Levy filed a motion for summary judgment contending that Ms. Kershaw should be judicially estopped from claiming in the malpractice case that her damages from Mr. Levy’s negligence resulted from an inequitable settlement agreement with Elliot Kershaw when she previously claimed under oath that the settlement had been equitable. Further, Mr. Levy argued that Ms. Kershaw should not be allowed to pursue any malpractice claim against him based on her criminal contempt convictions because they had been vacated and she voluntarily relinquished her right to pursue any post-conviction relief related to them in the MDA. Ms. Kershaw responded in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, asserting the damage resulting from Mr. Levy’s alleged negligence left her with no bargaining power in her settlement negotiations with Mr. Kershaw, and the fact that she entered into an agreement several months after Mr. Levy’s involvement that stated the settlement with Mr. Kershaw was fair and equitable was irrelevant.

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The case is DePalma v. Maya Murphy, 16 cv 8933, from the Southern District of New York.  The relevant opinion is dated December 1, 2017.

The plaintiff, Carol DePalma, sued her former divorce attorney and the court-appointed financial expert. This post will deal with the claims against the financial expert. During the divorce the parties chose and the court appointed an accounting firm, KLG, LLC. KLG was to render an opinion as to the value of Husband’s interest in Shred-It, a company in the shredding business. KLG issued two reports and the parties ultimately settled the divorce case.

Carol then sued KLG for negligence, for its purported failure to value the interest in Shred-It after it merged with another company.  The court dismissed the negligence claim against KLG and explained that the opinion of KLG did not proximately cause any injury to Carol. The explanation: