This opinion affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice action filed against a lawyer who defended a legal malpractice case. This case is unusual because there are two underlying cases, an immigration matter and the legal malpractice case arising out of the immigration matter.
Plaintiff John Huang is an immigration lawyer. The defendant was Ian Brenson, who defended Huang in a legal malpractice action.
The First Underlying Matter
Yongping Zhou was a Chinese citizen who was convicted in 1998 of domestic violence. Years later the INS began deportation proceedings. Zhou retained Huang to represent him. The representation lasted six months. Eventually Zhou was able to get his conviction for domestic violence vacated and he was apparently able to remain in the United States.
The Second Underlying Matter
Zhou sued Huang for legal malpractice. Huang retained Brenson. Brenson filed a motion for summary judgment in which he argued that Zhou could not recover non-economic damages in a legal malpractice case. The trial court ruled against Huang and the jury rendered a verdict against him. The jury awarded $4.0 million in damages, but the judge reduced the award to $1.0 million.
Huang then fired Brenson and retained other lawyers to do post-judgment work. Those lawyers appealed the case and the Appellate Court reversed the decision. It held that Zhou had no damages because non-economic damages cannot be recovered in a legal malpractice action. The Appellate Court decision was a complete victory for Huang.
Despite the victory on appeal, Huang sued Brenson for legal malpractice.
The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the legal malpractice claim because Huang did not allege proximate causation or a case-within-a-case. The appellate court held that Huang did not prove proximate causation by Brenson because Huang won his appeal based on the same arguments raised by Brenson in the trial court. Put in other words, the intervening legal error by the trial court (allowing non-economic damage testimony) was the cause of the bad verdict, not an error by Brenson. Indeed, Brenson filed the correct motion for summary judgment, but was the victim of an erroneous trial decision.
The court’s explanation of its holding is set forth below:
” Huang essentially alleges that he should have won at trial, and did not win because of Brenson’s negligence. But, as was the case in Cedeno, Huang’s case remained viable “after defendants’ discharge and the circuit court’s misapplication of the law served as an intervening cause.” See Cedeno,347 Ill. App. 3d at 176. Not only did it remain viable, but Huang was vindicated on appeal as a result of Brenson’s efforts to preserve the damages issue in the trial court.”
Conclusion: its rare to see lawyers sued for doing good quality work, but this is one such case. Losing a case happens all the time. Proving that the loss was caused by the lawyer is much more rare and much more difficult.
Edward X. Clinton, Jr.