Articles Posted in Judgment Call Defense

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In Kozal v. Snyder, 978 N.W.2d 174, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that an attorney did not commit legal malpractice because the purported error was a close call and the law was unsettled. in the underlying case, the attorney represented clients who wished to renew liquor licenses. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the case he filed was insufficient because he failed to name as parties and serve the citizens who objected to the renewal of the liquor licenses.

Kozal then filed a claim against the lawyer, but the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of that legal malpractice case as well. The court’s reasoning:

When Snyder filed the appeal underlying Kozal I, in which he did not name the citizen objectors as parties, the issue of naming citizen objectors in appeals from decisions of the NLCC was an unsettled issue of law. Additionally, Snyder did not have a duty to inform his clients regarding the unsettled area of law. We therefore find that the district court did not err when it concluded that, as a matter of law, appellees did not breach the applicable standard of care.

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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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State v. Roat, 466 P.3d 439 (Kansas 2020) is an unlikely case to provide an interesting discussion of a legal malpractice issue. Roat, having served his sentence, argued that his sentence for a crime had been computed incorrectly. The court held the appeal was moot. Roat tried to argue that his lawyers committed malpractice but the court rejected that argument as well. The discussion is thoughtful and the court concludes that a lawyer does not have a duty to argue for a change in the law.

Roat provides little in the way of the details of what he might assert as a factual basis for a legal malpractice claim. He leaves it to the appellate courts to flesh out the nature of his claims against his trial counsel. Failure to brief an analytic framework sufficiently for effective appellate review is tantamount to not raising the issue at all. See State v. Boleyn, 297 Kan. 610, 633, 303 P.3d 680 (2013)State v. Easterling, 289 Kan. 470, 487, 213 P.3d 418 (2009). A party should not leave the court “to guess about the specifics of how [a party] would frame his arguments….” State v. Berriozabal, 291 Kan. 568, 594, 243 P.3d 352 (2010).

We are reluctant to try to put flesh onto the skeleton of a hypothetical legal malpractice claim that Roat suggests creates an interest sufficient to defeat mootness. It may be that he would argue that his attorney should have made the arguments that appellate counsel successfully made in State v. Dickey, 301 Kan. 1018, 350 P.3d 1054 (2015). If Roat’s trial attorney had successfully made those arguments, then, the reasoning might be, he would have spent less time incarcerated.

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The opinion in Lloyd’s Syndicate 2987 v. Furman, Kornfeld & Brennan, LLP, 2020 NY Slip Op 02365 is pithy but worth considering.  Apparently the law firm advised an insurance company that it could deny coverage to a policyholder. That decision proved to be in error and the insurance company sued the law firm. Result: case dismissed.

The pertinent part of this pithy opinion is quoted here:

In this legal malpractice action, plaintiffs allege that they sustained damages when they relied on defendants’ negligent advice that they could disclaim coverage of their insured in an underlying malpractice action. In support of their motion to dismiss, defendants properly relied on documentary evidence, including the challenged disclaimer letter and the relevant policy, since their authenticity is undisputed and their contents are “essentially undeniable” (see DSA Realty Servs., LLC v Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Inc. Servs. of N.Y., Inc., 128 AD3d 587 [1st Dept 2015]; see also Kaplan v Conway & Conway, 173 AD3d 452, 453 [1st Dept 2019]; CPLR 3211[a][1]). The disclaimer letter sets forth an analysis of plaintiffs’ right to refuse coverage to their insured on two independent bases. Plaintiffs’ failure to allege with specificity or argue that one of the two bases for defendants’ advice was incorrect, requires dismissal of this legal malpractice action.

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One defense in a legal malpractice case is that the lawyer exercised judgment (usually at trial) and, therefore, he should not be liable for legal malpractice.

One way to explain this is to make an analogy to the role of a baseball manager. In my example, the manager’s team is leading 5-4 and there are two outs and two runners on base. The manager elects to intentionally walk the other team’s clean up hitter, Jones. He elects to have his pitcher pitch to the next hitter in the line up. Unfortunately, that hitter hits a home run (a grand slam) and four runs cross the plate. The angry fan (or newspaper columnist) says “He should not have intentionally walked Jones to pitch to Brown. If he had only done that, we would have won the game.” This is a classic case of a judgment call gone wrong. The manager made a decision after carefully weighing the odds and it turned out poorly. That is not baseball malpractice and it isn’t legal malpractice either if the lawyer elects not to call the criminal defendant to the stand or elects not to call an expert witness who will only support the State’s theory of the evidence. The key inquiry is whether or not the lawyer actually weighed the possible outcomes before he made his decision. In other words, was it a judgment call, or just a blunder?

In Schaeffer v. Thompson, No. 2180834 (Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama, February 20, 2020), the plaintiff claimed that the lawyer committed malpractice in the underlying case. Plaintiff obtained testimony by an expert witness that the lawyer’s work did not meet the standard of care.

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