Articles Posted in Legal Malpractice

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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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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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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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A recent case, Masellis v. Law Offices of Leslie Jensen, 50 Cal. App. 5th 1077, Court of Appeals of California (5th District. June 2020), discusses the burden of proof in a “settle and sue” legal malpractice case. That is a case where the plaintiff (represented by the lawyer) settles the underlying matter and then sues his lawyer alleging that the settlement was insufficient due to legal malpractice.

Here is the summary by Court of the issue and the conclusion:

The main legal question in these appeals is what burden of proof is appropriate in a legal malpractice action alleging an inadequate settlement? The defendant attorney Leslie F. Jensen (Attorney) addresses this question in two steps. First, she contends the elements of causation and damages in a “`settle and sue'” legal malpractice case[1] must be proven to “`a legal certainty.'” (Filbin v. Fitzgerald (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 154, 166 [149 Cal.Rptr.3d 422] (Filbin).) Second, she contends the legal certainty standard imposes a burden of proof higher than a mere preponderance of the evidence.

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Every plaintiff must surmount the hurdle of proximate causation. You cannot just allege that the lawyer committed malpractice, you must show how the error caused you damage. If you cannot do that, your legal malpractice case will be dismissed.  In Katsoris v. Bodnar & Milone, LLP, 2020 NY Slip Op 05040 (New York Appellate Division Second Department). The lawyers represented Katsoris in his divorce case, which was resolved by settlement. He sued for malpractice but the case was dismissed because Katsoris was unable to allege an error that caused any harm to him. The key discussion:

Here, the complaint failed to adequately allege actual, ascertainable damages. The general allegations that, as a result of the alleged acts of malpractice, the plaintiff was caused to incur “additional legal fees,” and caused to suffer “financial damages and expense,” “adverse financial consequences,” and “direct financial damage,” were all conclusory and inadequate to constitute “actual, ascertainable damages” (Dempster v Liotti, 86 AD3d at 177). To the extent that the complaint addressed the plaintiff’s settlement, the complaint alleged that the defendant’s negligence in its handling of the divorce action caused the plaintiff to suffer “direct prejudice . . . in both trial and/or settlement,” and that, but for such negligence, the plaintiff “would have fared far better at trial and/or in settlement of the Divorce Action.” These allegations are conclusory and lack any factual support, and they are inadequate to sufficiently allege that the stipulation of settlement that the plaintiff entered into with his former wife was “effectively compelled” by the mistakes of counsel (Rau v Borenkoff, 262 AD2d 388, 389; see Benishai v Epstein, 116 AD3d 726, 728). “The fact that the plaintiff subsequently was unhappy with the settlement [he] obtained . . . does not rise to the level of legal malpractice” (Holschauer v Fisher, 5 AD3d 553, 554). “Moreover, the plaintiff failed to plead specific factual allegations showing that, had he not settled, he would have obtained a more favorable outcome” (Schiller v Bender, Burrows & Rosenthal, LLP, 116 AD3d 756, 758; see Keness v Feldman, Kramer & Monaco, P.C., 105 AD3d at 813; Tortura v Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, P.C.,21 AD3d at 1083; Dweck Law Firm v Mann, 283 AD2d 292, 293; Rau v Borenkoff,262 AD2d at 389). Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination to grant that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the first cause of action, alleging legal malpractice.

Here, plaintiff could not explain what the lawyer did that was wrong and why that purported error caused damage.

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The case of Breitenstein v. Deters, 19 -cv-413 (S.D. Ohio Western Division) is unusual. Plaintiff retained the Defendant lawyers to represent her in a medical malpractice case. The underlying case was dismissed, but the plaintiff appealed that decision. While the appeal was pending, she sued her lawyers for legal malpractice. The court dismissed the legal malpractice case because plaintiff filed the case before her underlying case was resolved.  In other words, the plaintiff filed suit too soon. This case was decided in the 6th Circuit, under Ohio law. (In Illinois, the result might have been different.)  The discussion by the court notes that plaintiff might win her appeal and thus the dispute with her lawyers is not ripe.

Here, Defendants contend that dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is proper because Plaintiff’s claim lacks ripeness. The primary basis for Defendant’s argument is that Plaintiff’s 2013 suit is still pending on appeal. As such, Defendants are still representing Plaintiff. (Doc. 3 at 3). Because the appeal is ongoing, Defendants assert that Plaintiff has not yet suffered any ascertainable damages from the underlying lawsuit. Id. at 1. Further, because Defendants have tolled the statute of limitations, Plaintiff may bring her claims, if appropriate, within a year after the appeal is over. Defendants therefore conclude that Plaintiff does not face a threat of future harm that warrants the Court to entertain the matter before it is ripe. (Doc. 7 at 1-2).

In support of their assertions, Defendants heavily rely on the decision in Kovacs v. Chesley to support their arguments for dismissal. Kovacs v. Chesley, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 8989 (6th Cir. 2000). The fact pattern in Kovacs is similar to the current matter: Plaintiff sued her attorneys for negligent evaluation of her medical records during Defendant’s representation of Plaintiff in a medical malpractice lawsuit. When Plaintiff brought the lawsuit against her attorneys, the underlying lawsuit was still undergoing settlement processes. Consequentially, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld this Court’s dismissal of the case for lack of ripeness. (Id. at 2-3).

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The case is Iliescu v. Hale Lane Peek Dennison and Howard, No 76146, Supreme Court of Nevada.This is a complicated case and factual scenario that does often come up in legal malpractice cases. It goes like this:

A. Your client loses a ruling in a trial court in the underlying case.

B. Your client fires you.  (Next, they sue you for malpractice).

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In Sherman v. Ellis, K18CC-006-009, the Superior Court of Delaware considered a legal malpractice action filed by a former client against the attorney who had drafted his prenuptial agreement. The case is unusual because the divorce court ruled in Sherman’s favor and held that the prenuptial agreement was valid and binding. Despite having won the underlying litigation, Sherman sued his lawyer and alleged that the lawyer should have included an additional provision in the prenuptial agreement. Had the lawyer included this provision, according to Sherman, his ex-wife would not have challenged the prenuptial agreement in the divorce case and he would have not had to incur legal fees defending the prenup.

Comment: once you read those facts, you should realize that this was a very unsympathetic case for the plaintiff. He received good legal work from his lawyer and won his case and he still sued.

The Delaware court in a well-considered published opinion dismissed the legal malpractice case beause there was no evidence that the ex-wife would have agreed to the so-called Silver Bullet provision.

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