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It is extremely rare for a plaintiff to succeed in a legal malpractice case without obtaining an expert witness to testify as to the appropriate standard of care. Plaintiffs who attempt to prevail without an expert usually see their case dismissed on a summary judgment motion by the Defendant. However, in Cannon v. Poliquin, No. K19C-03-023-CLS (Delaware Superior Court) the court held that no expert testimony was required. The court then denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The court noted that there were two causes of action in the complaint: (a) legal malpractice and (b) fraudulent inducement. (The opinion does not describe the factual allegations so we don’t know what actually occurred). However, the court noted that because the case would be tried in a bench trial (no jury) there was no need for an expert witness.  This is an unusual assertion and one that I have not seen before. The explanation:

Plaintiffs contend that an attorney is not required for their legal malpractice claim because it is based on intentional or reckless conduct. Without reaching the issue of whether or not an expert witness must testify in cases alleging intentional or reckless conduct, the Court finds that an expert witness is not required in this specific case. Under Delaware’s Uniform Rules of Evidence, a witness is qualified as an expert witness if that witness’s “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue.”[6] This case is a bench trial; thus, the Court is the trier of fact. It is unnecessary for an expert witness to provide testimony on the appropriate standard of care for an attorney because the Court knows the applicable standard of care. Accordingly, an expert witness’s “specialized knowledge” will not help the trier of fact determine the appropriate standard of care for an attorney. Because an expert witness is not required for Plaintiffs’ claim, Defendant has failed to show that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiffs’ claim for legal malpractice.

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Generally, in Illinois, the successful plaintiff in a legal malpractice action can recover from the lawyer the same damages that he could recover in the underlying case. So, in a personal injury case, the plaintiff can recover (a) economic damages, such as medical bills and lost wages and (b) pain and suffering damages. If a lawyer causes the plaintiff to lose a valid claim, the plaintiff should be able to recover the same damages from the lawyer.  In Webster Bank v. Pierce & Associates, P.C., 16-cv2522, (2-19-2020) the district court held that a plaintiff bank can recover prejudgment interest in a legal malpractice claim against its former lawyer.

The underlying case was a collection action on a promissory note. The opinion does not describe the act of legal malpractice. The defendant law firm filed a motion in limine to bar the bank from seeking pre-judgment interest. The court denied the motion because the bank (had it been successful in the underlying case) could have obtained the same prejudgment interest.  The pertinent discussion follows:

Here, Webster alleges Pierce’s malpractice in a suit-on-note claim against Kristen Jasinski caused its damage. According to Webster, had Pierce been successful in the underlying suit-on-note claim, Webster would have been entitled to a judgment in the amount of the principle of the note plus interest from the date of Jasinski’s default to the date of judgment under the terms of Jasinski’s loan agreement or the Illinois Interest Act, 815 ILCS 205/2. (Dkt. 182, Ex. 1, p. 3) (finance charge calculated by applying the periodic interest rate to the Daily Balance of the loan); 815 ILCS 205/2 (“Creditors shall be allowed to receive at the rate of five (5) per centum per annum for all moneys after they become due on any … promissory note … In the absence of an agreement between the creditor and debtor governing interest charges, upon 30 days’ written notice to the debtor, an assignee or agent of the creditor may charge and collect interest as provided in this Section on behalf of a creditor.”). Webster asserts that the

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A former divorce client who was held in criminal contempt in the divorce case sued his former lawyers for legal malpractice. His claim was dismissed and the Court of Appeals of California, Second District, affirmed the conviction.  The case is Parchin v. Feinberg Mindel Brandt and Klein B295202, dated February 5, 2020. The explanation:

Pavel Parchin appeals from a judgment following an order by the trial court sustaining the demurrer of respondents Feinberg Mindel Brandt & Klein and John Chason (Respondents) without leave to amend. Parchin alleged that Respondents were negligent in representing him in connection with a criminal contempt proceeding in his marital dissolution action. Parchin was convicted of contempt for violating a judgment ordering the payment of spousal support. The trial court sustained the demurrer on the ground that Parchin failed to plead actual innocence and could not allege causation.

We affirm. Parchin was convicted of criminal contempt. An action for legal malpractice in a criminal proceeding requires a plaintiff to plead and prove actual innocence. Parchin’s claimed basis for his innocence—that the judgment underlying his contempt conviction was voided by a subsequent court order—is legally untenable, as confirmed by a prior appellate ruling in the dissolution action.

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The case is captioned Patterson v. Kohn, 2017 AP 1524, decided by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Patterson sued his former criminal defense lawyer for failing to properly investigate his defense (self-defense to a reckless homicide charge), and interview witnesses. Patterson was unable to obtain an expert witness to support his claims and his case was dismissed. The dismissal was affirmed on appeal. The Court of Appeals rejected Patterson’s argument that the breach did not require an expert witness.

¶10 Patterson relies on the exceptions to the rule requiring expert testimony by arguing that his “legal malpractice claim can be decided as a matter of law based on undisputed and conceded facts, expert testimony is unnecessary in this case” (emphasis omitted). Patterson’s argument centers entirely on what he considers to be Kohn’s negligence. Specifically, Patterson argues that Kohn negligently failed to follow “instructions” by failing to investigate certain facts, circumstances, and witnesses to support Patterson’s self-defense theory, and that the negligence led to his conviction. We do not agree with Patterson that this cause of action involves only a failure to follow instructions. Patterson’s legal malpractice cause of action implicates the applicable standard of care attorneys owe their clients, statutes and case law regarding criminal procedure, and the judgment criminal attorneys exercise on a case-by-case basis. See Pierce v. Colwell, 209 Wis. 2d 355, 362, 563 N.W.2d 166 (Ct. App. 1997) (“[E]xpert testimony will generally be required to satisfy this standard of care as to those matters which fall outside the area of common knowledge and lay comprehension.”). We conclude that under the facts of this case, Patterson was required to present expert testimony to prove his claim that Kohn’s alleged negligence caused his injury or damage. A lay person would not understand the evidence necessary for a successful (from Patterson’s standpoint) McMorris hearing, the discovery and investigation process in a criminal matter, or the level of discretion afforded to criminal defense attorneys.

¶11 Moreover, Patterson ignores a key requirement in legal malpractice actions stemming from an attorney’s representation in a criminal matter— Patterson’s claim requires proof of actual innocence. See Hicks v. Nunnery, 2002 WI App 87, ¶¶32-50, 253 Wis. 2d 721, 643 N.W.2d 809 (legal malpractice claim in criminal context requires proof of actual innocence). Put another way, Patterson has not made any showing that Kohn’s actions or inactions caused him harm. Patterson’s contention is that, if certain persons had testified to certain facts in his criminal case, he would not have been convicted. Patterson names those persons in his complaint. However, Patterson proffers no admissible evidence in the record to support his contention that those persons would have, if called, testified as Patterson contends.

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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 captioned In re Gary K. Davidson, 2017 PR 00099. There were two charges of misconduct: (a) failing to disclose a fee arrangement with a land surveyor; and (b) falsely certifying compliance with MCLE requirements. The first charge was not proven but the second charge was proven and a three-month suspension was recommended. The take-away from this is that Illinois will punish a false MCLE certification. The Panel noted that few reports by lawyers are audited so, therefore, there should be punishment if the lawyer makes a false representation.

 

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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 Sherman v. Ellis, K18CC-006-009, the Superior Court of Delaware considered a legal malpractice action filed by a former client against the attorney who had drafted his prenuptial agreement. The case is unusual because the divorce court ruled in Sherman’s favor and held that the prenuptial agreement was valid and binding. Despite having won the underlying litigation, Sherman sued his lawyer and alleged that the lawyer should have included an additional provision in the prenuptial agreement. Had the lawyer included this provision, according to Sherman, his ex-wife would not have challenged the prenuptial agreement in the divorce case and he would have not had to incur legal fees defending the prenup.

Comment: once you read those facts, you should realize that this was a very unsympathetic case for the plaintiff. He received good legal work from his lawyer and won his case and he still sued.

The Delaware court in a well-considered published opinion dismissed the legal malpractice case beause there was no evidence that the ex-wife would have agreed to the so-called Silver Bullet provision.

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