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Divorce Malpractice Case Dismissed Where Plaintiff Caused Her Own Damages

The case is Knox v. Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, 2018 NY Slip Op 9030. The plaintiff was represented in her divorce by two law firms and she sued both firms in this legal malpractice case. Plaintiff lost a custody fight with her ex-husband and was ordered to pay attorney fees when she failed to comply with a court order to return the child to New York from Connecticut. She sued the Aronson firm for bad advice (alleged) and for failing to move for attorney fees. The reasoning is instructive:

Turning first to plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action against AMS, she alleges that AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, resulting in her failure to receive an undetermined award to pay her attorneys. This claim fails because plaintiff’s various successor counsel had ample time and opportunity to make such a motion, and in fact one did (although it was purportedly abandoned) (see Davis v Cohen & Gresser, LLP, 160 AD3d 484, 487 [1st Dept 2018]).

Even assuming AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, by agreeing as part of the settlement[2] to forgo any award of attorneys’ fees except for $20,000, plaintiff cannot show that but for AMS’s negligence she would not have sustained the loss (see generally Tydings v Greenfield, Stein & Senior, LLP,43 AD3d 680, 682 [1st Dept 2007], affd 11 NY3d 195 [2008] [to establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must demonstrate that “but for” the attorney’s negligence, plaintiff would have prevailed in the matter in question; failure to demonstrate proximate cause mandates the dismissal of a legal malpractice action regardless of whether the attorney was negligent]); 180 Ludlow Dev. LLC v Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP, 165 AD3d 594, 595 [1st Dept 2018] [“While proximate cause is generally a question for the factfinder. . . it can, in appropriate circumstances, be determined as a matter of law”]).

Next, plaintiff claims that AMS was negligent in allegedly advising her that she was permitted to move to Connecticut, resulting in the loss of custody of the child. The damages plaintiff seeks are the attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with the husband’s motion to compel her return to New York and future legal fees she will have to expend to recover custody. Again, this claim fails because plaintiff’s alleged damages were not proximately caused by any advice given by AMS, but rather by her own subsequent failure to comply with the terms of the settlement.

Turning to the breach of fiduciary duty claim, plaintiff seeks damages for pain and mental suffering, the $132,000 plaintiff was required to pay the husband for his attorneys’ fees, the attorneys’ fees needed to recover custody of the child, and punitive damages. This claim and ensuing damages sought for the breach are duplicative of the malpractice cause of action (see Alphas v Smith, 147 AD3d 557, 558-559 [1st Dept 2017] [where the court found that the relief sought in the fiduciary duty claim was identical to the legal malpractice claim as it sought similar damages]).

Even if the two causes of action are not duplicative, Supreme Court properly dismissed the breach of fiduciary cause of action. In the attorney liability context, the breach of fiduciary duty claim is governed by the same standard as a legal malpractice claim (see Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP v Fashion Boutique of Short Hills, Inc., 10 AD3d 267, 271-272 [1st Dept 2004]). Accordingly, to recover damages against an attorney arising out of the breach of the attorney’s fiduciary duty, plaintiff must establish the “but for” element of malpractice (see Ulico Cas. Co. v Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, 56 AD3d 1, 11 [1st Dept 2008]).

Citing to Domestic Relations Law ยง 240, plaintiff contends that had the motion court considered her application for a protective order, the husband would not have gained custody of the child. However, this statute gives the court discretion and does not mandate a particular decision. Moreover, under the temporary stipulation plaintiff and the child received exclusive occupancy of the Manhattan apartment. The husband was given visitation. Thereafter, under the settlement, plaintiff agreed to joint custody and was given primary residential custody of the child. As a matter of law, her damages, including loss of primary residential custody of the child, flow from her breach of the settlement, and not from AMS’s acts or omissions.

Comment: this is a typical result in a legal malpractice case. The plaintiff may have identified some negligent advice by the lawyers (possibly), but there is no claim because plaintiff caused her own damages by failing to comply with a court order.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

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