Articles Posted in Proximate Causation

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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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This is a case raising a proximate causation argument. To prove malpractice the plaintiff must allege and prove that but for the negligence of the attorney he would have won the underlying case. Here, in Ackerman v. Dembin, 2020 NY Slip Op 32398(U), a doctor was disciplined by the New York Department of Public Health for professional misconduct.  The major issue in the case was a claim that the lawyers failed to adequately defend a claim of an improper procedure. Apparently, after he agreed to a three-year period of probation the doctor obtained new counsel who corrected the record.

The Facts

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The case, Herren v. Armenta, No. 1-CA-CV-18-0381 (Arizona Court of Appeals January 14, 2020) is a legal malpractice case where Herren lost her underlying case, a business dispute. As we shall see, despite evidence of negligence she also lost the legal malpractice case.

In the underlying matter, Herren hired Armenta to defend a lawsuit by Tonto Supply over a gravel-mining contract. The defense did not go well as we can see from this quote:

¶4 Tonto Supply then filed a multi-claim lawsuit against Herren, and Herren hired Arizona-licensed Holden and her firm to assist with the lawsuit. After Appellees filed an answer and counterclaims on Herren’s behalf, Tonto Supply filed five motions for partial summary judgment on various claims and counterclaims and sent Herren a request for admission of 25 factual matters. Appellees did not respond to the request for admissions and failed to timely respond to the partial summary judgment motions. Appellees were late responding to four of the motions, even after obtaining an extension following the initial deadline, and Appellees neglected to respond at all to one of the motions.

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One defense to a legal malpractice case is that the plaintiff could never have collected any money from the defendant in the underlying case. This defense is rarely asserted, but it can be very effective. In a malpractice case, you must prove what the outcome of the underlying case would have been absent negligence. This type of proof is imperfect because some speculation is involved.

For example, client sues an entity that is insolvent. Client’s lawyer makes an error that causes the client to lose the case (such as missing the statute of limitations). Client sues his former lawyer. Under the insolvency defense, client loses the case because he could not have collected anyway and thus the lawyer did not “cause” the loss of his recovery.

In Ewing v. Westport Insurance Company, CA – 19-551, the court rejected the insolvency defense. The opinion explains that the defense of insolvency was not proven:

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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 Herren v. Armenta, 1-CA-CV-18-0381, the plaintiff sued her former lawyers alleging that they committed legal malpractice when the represented her in another case (the underlying case). In the underlying case, Tonto Supply, Inc., sued Herren for breach of contract and other torts. Herren alleged that her lawyers were negligent because they failed to timely respond to requests to admit and to several motions for summary judgment, resulting in a judgment against her.

This case presented a common problem with legal malpractice actions – would Herren have won the underlying case if the lawyers had responded in timely fashion?

In the malpractice case, Herren had the burden to prove that the lawyer’s negligence was the cause of her loss.  She was unable to meet that standard, despite the fact that she hired an expert. The court explains its decision to affirm the dismissal of the malpractice case:

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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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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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In this case, Eskridge v. Fletcher, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One, No. 78013-1-l, a medical doctor sued the lawyers who unsuccessfully represented him in his license revocation proceeding. The record indicated that there was substantial evidence that Dr. Eskridge had acted inappropriately towards other doctors and patients. As a result, the hospital revoked his admission privileges. After an internal review, Dr. Eskridge’s privileges were revoked. On the advice of the defendant lawyers, Eskridge elected not to appeal that determination.

The malpractice lawsuit alleged that, had the appeal been filed, it would have been successful and Eskridge would have retained his privileges.

The trial court disagreed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that he could not show by clear and convincing evidence (the standard used in the medical revocation proceeding) that, but for the error by the lawyer, he would have prevailed in his appeal. The discussion follows:

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Sometimes things get missed or lost in the shuffle when clients change lawyers. It is often difficult to get the new lawyer up to speed in time to get a case ready for dispositive motions or trial.  When I see that the client had numerous lawyers involved in a case, that is usually a good signal that the case cannot be won. Each lawyer will blame another lawyer and its tough for the plaintiff to recover. You can sue everybody, but you will be subject to motions to dismiss and separate defenses.

This is a legal malpractice case recognizing the successor counsel defense. Ryan was represented by the Simmons firm in certain litigation. It was undisputed that they withdrew before the statute of limitations on some of Ryan’s claims ran. Successor counsel appeared 13 weeks before the pleadings closed in the litigation. The court quotes the law, which is well-settled:

Our supreme court has acknowledged the rule that “[a]n attorney cannot be held liable for failing to file an action prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations if he ceased to represent the client and was replaced by other counsel before the statute ran on the client’s action.” Ruden v. Jenk, 543 N.W.2d 605, 612 (Iowa 1996) (quoting Steketee v. Lintz, Williams & Rothberg, 694 P.2d 1153, 1159 (Cal. 1985)). Other courts have further explained the effect of successor counsel in legal malpractice claims. See Norton v. Sperling Law Office, P.C., 437 F. Supp. 2d 398, 402-03 (D. Md. 2006). The actions of successor counsel may create “an intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation arising from the prior attorney’s negligence.” Id. at 402. In order to rely on this rule, the prior attorney must show “a sufficiently long time gap between the severing of the attorney-client relationship and the lapse of the statute of limitations.” Id. at 403. “Courts have not set a minimum baseline for what constitutes `sufficient time,’ although one court has deemed as little as thirty days sufficient.” Id. (citing Sherotov v. Capoccia, 555 N.Y.S.2d 918 (App. Div. 1990)); but see id. at 403 (finding ten weeks was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a personal injury case where the proper forum was not clear); Villarreal v. Cooper, 673 S.W.2d 631 (Tex. App. 1984)(finding seventy-seven days was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a tort case when prior counsel had the case for sixteen months and evidence and witnesses could no longer be located).

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