Articles Posted in Legal Malpractice

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There are a number of issues that you should consider before you file a legal malpractice claim against a lawyer. Your lawyer should discuss these issues with you so that you understand how to proceed:

  1. Did the lawyer cause your harm or was it caused by someone or something else? You are required to prove that the lawyer was the proximate cause of the loss of your case. Consider whether you would have won the case absent whatever error you believe the lawyer made. Play Devil’s Advocate – even if the lawyer had done what he was supposed to do, would I have won the case? Often the answer to this question is “No” because the case could not be won under any circumstances.
  2. Am I prepared to waive the attorney-client privilege? When you sue your lawyer you are almost always deemed to have waived the attorney-client privilege. That privilege shields communications from you to the lawyer and from the lawyer to you. It allow you to seek legal advice without fear that your own words will come back to haunt you. But if you sue a lawyer, you waive the privilege. Consider carefully whether the waiver of the privilege is worth it to you.
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An engagement letter can be very important in that it sets limits on the attorney-client relationship. A good engagement letter defines what the lawyer will do and what the lawyer will not do. In the case captioned, Attallah v. Milbank Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, 168 A.D.3d 1026 (2019), 93 N.Y.S.3d 353, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice case based on the precise terms of the engagement letter.

The law firm agreed to represent Attallah on a pro bono basis to investigate whether or not he could be reinstated by a school that had expelled him.  The engagement letter made it clear that the law firm’s engagement did not include litigation with the professional school.  It provided:

To that end, the parties executed a letter of engagement dated July 7, 2011. The letter of engagement provided, in relevant part, that: “Our services will include all activities necessary and appropriate in our judgment to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration of your dismissal from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (the `College’). This engagement does not, however, encompass any form of litigation or, to the extent ethically prohibited in this circumstance, the threat of litigation, to resolve this matter. This engagement will end upon your re-admittance to the College or upon a determination by the attorneys working on this matter that no non-litigation mechanisms are available to assist you. The scope of the engagement may not be expanded orally or by conduct; it may only be expanded by a writing signed by our Director of Public Service.”

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This case, Ostrolenk Faber LLP v. Sakar International, Inc., 2019 NY Slip Op 31303(U), holds that a counterclaim for legal malpractice against an intellectual property firm stated a claim. Sakar retained Ostrolenk to defend it in a patent infringement lawsuit. In the underlying case, a plaintiff alleged that a product manufactured and sold by Sakar to Office Depot violated plaintiff’s patent.The case was eventually settled.

The current case involved (a) the law firm suing for legal fees; and (b) the former client, Sakar, filing a counterclaim for legal malpractice.  The counterclaim alleged that the law firm failed to promptly research the “prior art” in the particular invention. Had it done so, the law firm would have realized that the patent infringement claim against Sakar had no merit. Instead, the firm engaged in other litigation activity which, in Sakar’s view, ran up costs.

The court held that the counterclaim stated a claim and reasoned as follows:

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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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Illinois has a rule that allows a plaintiff to dismiss a case once. The plaintiff can then refile the case. The rule does not allow multiple dismissals. In Webster Bank v. Pierce & Associates, P.C., No. 16 C 2522 (N.D. IL March 14, 2019), the court denied a defendant law firm’s motion for summary judgment because the law firm had violated the refiling rule.

The Illinois single refiling rule provides that if:

the action is voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff, or the action is dismissed for want of prosecution, * * * the plaintiff, his or her heirs, executors or administrators may commence a new action within one year or within the remaining period of limitation, whichever is greater, after * * * the action is voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff.735 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/13-217. This provision is understood to “permit[] one, and only one, refiling of a claim.” Flesner v. Youngs Development Co., 145 Ill.2d 252, 254 (1991). The single refiling rule is considered to be an extension of res judicata. Carr v. Tillery, 591 F.3d 909, 915 (7th Cir. 2010) (“The one-refiling rule is thus the extension of the doctrine of res judicata to a class of cases in which the decision deemed to be res judicata is a dismissal without prejudice.”)

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This case, Alerding Castor Hewitt, LLP v. Paul Fletcher, et al, 16-cv-02453 (S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division) (April 18, 2019) illustrates the necessity of obtaining expert testimony to support a claim. Fletcher brought a malpractice claim against his former counsel after counsel sued for legal fees. Fletcher alleged that the attorneys were negligent when they represented him in a civil forgery case. The court disagreed and granted summary judgment for the attorneys.

Fletcher could not show that any alleged error by the attorneys proximately caused his loss because he had no expert testimony to support his claims:

To establish the applicable standard of care, Alerding Castor has presented an expert report from attorney David C. Jensen. Jensen’s thorough report discusses his review of the record from the Forgery Lawsuit in light of the applicable standard of care. Dkt. 130-3. Jensen concludes that Alerding Castor exercised ordinary skill and knowledge in litigating the Forgery Lawsuit and met the standard of care they were obligated to provide in its representation of Defendants. Id. at 16. Jensen’s conclusions are amply supported by the facts in the record.

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This is a legal malpractice action arising out of a real estate purchase. Viktoriya Bakcheva retained the Law Offices of Stein & Associates to represent her in the purchase of a condominium unit. She alleged that the lawyers did not properly investigate the transaction because the Unit at issue had a second floor above the first floor. The problem – the second floor was not as described in the condominium documents or the certificate of occupancy. (It would appear that a prior owner of the unit had added an additional floor to the unit without obtaining a permit or the permission of the condominium association. As one might imagine, the lawyers’ motion for summary judgment was denied. They appealed and did no better in the Appellate Division.

The explanation:

We agree with the Supreme Court that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the legal malpractice cause of action. Although the defendants established their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact in opposition. Specifically, the plaintiff submitted evidence that she had informed the defendants, prior to the closing, that the main portion of the apartment was on the seventh floor of the building and that the apartment included a second level. According to the plaintiff, the defendants committed malpractice because they failed to recognize the illegality of the second level, since neither the certificate of occupancy nor the approved condominium offering plan authorized the existence of an eighth floor to the condominium (see id.).

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May an insurance company sue the defense firm that it hired where it alleges that the defense firm did not meet the standard of care? In Florida, according to Arch Insurance Company v. Kubicki Draper, 4-D17-2889, the insurance company may not file suit because it lacks privity with the law firm.  The insurance company alleged that it hired the firm to defend a case for one of its insureds. The law firm allegedly failed to raise the statute of limitations defense, which caused the insurance company to incur a loss.

The privity defense holds that a plaintiff cannot sue a defendant unless he was “in privity” with that defendant. Here, even though the insurance company hired the law firm to defend its insured, there was no privity because the law firm was responsible only to its client, the insured. The court rejected the insurance company’s public policy arguments:

The insurer nevertheless argues public policy and common sense dictate that an insurer should be able to pursue legal malpractice claims against defense counsel retained to represent its insureds. According to the insurer:

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I often receive phone calls and emails from people who believe that they have a legal malpractice claim against their current lawyer. Most of these claims are not malpractice claims, often because the underlying matter or lawsuit is not finished.

So, someone calls and says that her lawyer missed court dates, forgot to take a deposition and did not disclose an expert on time. My question is this: “How much money did you lose because of that alleged mistake by the lawyer?” Very often, the answer is (a) the case is still pending and I hired a new lawyer to fix the mistakes of the former lawyer or (b) I settled the case and received a settlement payment.

If the answer is “a”, there is no legal malpractice case as this time, although there may be a case in the future.

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The case is Davis v. Cohen & Gresser, 2018 NY Slip Op 02542, a legal malpractice case filed against a law firm.

Davis alleged that the law firm allowed the statute of limitations to run on RICO claims by failing to name to key parties in a lawsuit. The court ultimately concluded that the statute of limitations had run on the claims. However, the law firm greatly strengthened its position by producing a copy of a carefully drafted engagement letter. The engagement letter demonstrated that the law firm was not retained to handle the RICO action.  Further, the law firm never filed an appearance in that lawsuit.

New York allows the statute of limitations to be tolled where there is a continuous representation of the client by the law firm. Davis attempted to argue that the continuous representation doctrine applied to his case. However, as the court explains, the engagement letter and the court record demonstrated that there was no continuous representation: