Sandler was a plaintiff in an underlying medical malpractice action in which he alleged that he received substandard care at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. Advocate retained a standard of care witness who testified against him. Sandler, even though he won the underlying case, sued Advocate’s expert on the ground that the expert failed to diagnose his brain injury. The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that there was no doctor-patient relationship and no duty of care. The Appellate Court affirmed, but on different reasoning. The Appellate Court reasoned that a statement by an opposing expert in a report or deposition was absolutely privileged. For many years courts have recognized that a lay witness is immune from liability for his pertinent testimony at trial. The relevant caselaw, quoted in Sandler, is as follows: “As a general rule, witnesses enjoy an absolute privilege from civil suit for statements made during judicial proceedings. Ritchey v. Maksin, 71 Ill. 2d 470, 476 (1978). The purpose of the rule is to preserve the integrity of the judicial process by encouraging full and frank testimony. Layne v. Builders Plumbing Supply Co.,210 Ill. App. 3d 966, 969 (1991). ” Sandler ¶ 26.
The plaintiff claimed that he missed the closing date on three real estate transactions because his lawyers did not give notice. The lawyers insisted that (a) the plaintiff fired them long before closing and (b) they notified plaintiff of the new closing dates.
The court held the case barred by the three-year statute of limitations in New Jersey. The explanation:
Here, plaintiff, a New Jersey resident, brings a legal malpractice claim against Kane and Berger. The applicable statute of limitations for a claim of legal malpractice is three years in New York (CPLR 214) and six years in New Jersey (McGrogan v Till, 167 NJ 414, 426, 771 A2d 1187 ). Therefore, New York’s three-year statute of limitations period applies.
The Supreme Court of Washington has held that a client who sues his former attorney for legal malpractice may not allege that the lawyer’s withdrawal from the underlying case was improper if that withdrawal was approved by a judge.
The court succinctly puts the issue this way:
In this case, former clients are suing their attorneys for legal malpractice based, in part, on the attorneys’ withdrawal from a prior case. But the attorneys obtained that withdrawal by court order. In the original case, the former clients appealed the court’s order approving withdrawal, and that appeal was rejected. The attorneys thus argue that collateral estoppel applies to bar a malpractice action based on their withdrawal. We agree. We hold that the fact of withdrawal by court order in an earlier proceeding is dispositive in a later malpractice suit against the attorney. Although other malpractice complaints unrelated to the withdrawal would not be precluded, a client cannot relitigate whether the attorney’s withdrawal was proper. If we are to have rules permitting attorney withdrawal, we must allow attorneys to have confidence in those rules. We, therefore, reverse the Court of Appeals.
One of the more vexing issues in the area of legal malpractice is what happens when the plaintiff settles the underlying case. In most states, the plaintiff would have to prove that but for the negligence of the defendant attorney, he would have obtained a better financial result in the underlying case. North Carolina, however, holds that the decision to settle the underlying case gives the negligent lawyer a complete defense to the legal malpractice action. This is an unpublished decision, but it is worth reviewing because it illustrates how the decision to settle the underlying case protects negligent attorneys.
The plaintiff alleged that the lawyers failed to properly serve a breach of contract lawsuit. The negligence alleged, if true, is fairly shocking:
On 5 May 2006, the Horne defendants filed a complaint against the Hill defendants in Pitt County Superior Court alleging breach of contract. However, the Horne defendants never served the Hill defendants with a summons or a copy of the complaint, the action was discontinued, and plaintiff was never informed about the status of the action. When plaintiff emailed the Horne defendants on 23 October 2006 to inquire about its status, defendant Horne II responded:
This case is interesting because it dismisses a legal malpractice claim because the expert did not reveal how the negligence of the attorney caused the injury of the plaintiff. The opinion does not shed as much light on the facts of the case as I would like it to. However, the opinion does explain that although plaintiff had an expert and the expert prepared a report, the expert did not sufficiently explain proximate causation. Proximate causation is a difficult concept for nonlawyers to understand. Indeed, sometimes lawyers do not understand it.
In sum, the expert report said the lawyer was negligent but it failed to explain why the negligence caused the bad result that the plaintiff received. The opinion, though it is based on Minnesota law, is consistent with the modern trend in the cases which requires expert reports to be more complete.
Edward X. Clinton, Jr.
The Seventh Circuit has affirmed a decision to dismiss a legal malpractice complaint in which West Bend Insurance alleged that its former counsel committed legal malpractice in connection with the defense of a worker’s compensation claim. The claim set forth numerous deficiencies in the lawyer’s performance in the worker’s compensation case, including his unauthorized decision to admit liability. However, the complaint was dismissed because West Bend never explained why the alleged errors would have made a difference. Put another way, West Bend never alleged how the result would have been different in the absence of the alleged breaches of duty. Judge Ripple’s opinion sets forth the court’s reasoning on proximate causation in some detail and is worth quoting here:
There is no dispute that West Bend has described adequately the duty element in its malpractice claim. Nor is there any disagreement about the adequacy of West Bend’s narrative with respect to the alleged attorney conduct constituting a breach of that duty. In that respect, West Bend alleges that Mr. Schumacher, having assumed responsibility for the defense of the claim, failed to prepare adequately for the hearing, revealed inappropriately the defense theory of the case to Marzano’s counsel, and then, without authorization, conceded liability for Marzano’s workers’ compensation claim.
The allegations with respect to causation and damages present, however, significant concerns. At the outset, we note that the treatment by the Second Amended Complaint of the underlying workers’ compensation claim, which, as we have explained, is central to an assessment of causation and damages, is markedly different from the treatment of Mr. Schumacher’s alleged litigation conduct. While the complaint describes the conduct in some detail, it describes the underlying workers’ compensation claim in rather summary fashion. Specifically, while the complaint identifies the injured party as John Marzano, it tells us nothing about his claimed injury or his claim against his employer. Instead, it summarily states that “[p]rior to August 2006, there existed certain factual defenses and a medical causation defense to the Marzano claim.”
This is an unpublished case which had an interesting result. Plaintiff was represented by the Defendant attorney in her divorce case. Her husband, David Whittlemore, was apparently in financial difficulties. David Whittlemore offered an unusual settlement term to his soon to be ex-wife. He claimed that his wealthy brother Harvey would guarantee his maintenance obligations to her. In 2011, David filed for bankruptcy and the plaintiff contacted her lawyer who, after some correspondence, revealed that the wealthy brother had never signed the guarantee. Plaintiff then brought a legal malpractice claim against her former attorney.
The court set forth the facts as follows:
On October 11, 2007, Ms. Whittemore and her husband, Mr. David Whittemore, placed a settlement agreement on the record. Under the agreement, David Whittemore agreed to make monthly alimony payments until December 2021. He also agreed to procure a guaranty for his alimony payments from his wealthy brother, Mr. Harvey Whittemore.
It is very common that someone will come into my office and explain that he is a victim of legal malpractice. Often, for reasons I don’t understand, the person waits more than two years after the underlying judgment before they contact me. By waiting this long, the statute of limitations has run and there is absolutely nothing we can do to help the plaintiff.
In Illinois the plaintiff has two years to file suit from whenever the plaintiff discovers the injury. Where there is litigation, discovery occurs when the underlying case reaches judgment.
In Belden v. Emmerman, the Illinois Appellate Court held that the statute of limitations begins to run when there is an adverse judgment against the injured party. The defendant moved to dismiss and the plaintiff argued that, because he filed an appeal of the adverse judgment, the statute of limitations did not start to run until the appeal was decided.
In recent years, there have been several attempts by dissatisfied family law litigants to sue lawyers appointed by the courts to serve various roles. This case involves an attempt to sue a court-appointed child’s representative for legal malpractice. This is now the third decision holding that the child’s representative has absolute immunity from a legal malpractice lawsuit. The court reasoned that the child’s representative was appointed by the court and was therefore immune.
The policy reason to grant absolute immunity is to protect the court’s ability to appoint a child’s representative. The child’s representative is appointed by statute and must confer with the child and make evidence based legal arguments on behalf of the child. Were the court to allow everyone who lost a custody case to sue the child’s representative, so the theory goes, it would make it difficult to have a child’s representative appointed. Slippery Slope arguments are usually rejected by courts because every class of defendant in every case has, at one time or another, made such an argument. Prior decisions in Illinois rejecting similar claims are Vlastelica v. Brend, 2011 IL App (1st) 102587 and Cooney v. Rossiter, 583 F.3d 967 (7th Cir. 2009).