An engagement letter can be very important in that it sets limits on the attorney-client relationship. A good engagement letter defines what the lawyer will do and what the lawyer will not do. In the case captioned, Attallah v. Milbank Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, 168 A.D.3d 1026 (2019), 93 N.Y.S.3d 353, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice case based on the precise terms of the engagement letter.
The law firm agreed to represent Attallah on a pro bono basis to investigate whether or not he could be reinstated by a school that had expelled him. The engagement letter made it clear that the law firm’s engagement did not include litigation with the professional school. It provided:
To that end, the parties executed a letter of engagement dated July 7, 2011. The letter of engagement provided, in relevant part, that: “Our services will include all activities necessary and appropriate in our judgment to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration of your dismissal from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (the `College’). This engagement does not, however, encompass any form of litigation or, to the extent ethically prohibited in this circumstance, the threat of litigation, to resolve this matter. This engagement will end upon your re-admittance to the College or upon a determination by the attorneys working on this matter that no non-litigation mechanisms are available to assist you. The scope of the engagement may not be expanded orally or by conduct; it may only be expanded by a writing signed by our Director of Public Service.”
The professional school did not reconsider its decision to expel the plaintiff. The law firm refused to commence litigation or take further action. Plaintiff sued for legal malpractice (and other causes of action) but his case was dismissed because the engagement letter limited the terms of the engagement. The explanation:
We agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint. Contrary to the plaintiff’s contention, according to the parties’ undisputed letter of engagement, the defendant did not promise to negotiate administrative reconsideration on the plaintiff’s behalf but, rather, that it would “investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration of your dismissal from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.” The letter of engagement conclusively demonstrated that there was no promise to negotiate. There was only a promise to investigate and consider whether there were any options possibly available to urge the school to reconsider the plaintiff’s expulsion. Anything else, including the defendant’s failure to commence litigation against the school and the defendant’s alleged rendering of legal advice regarding the efficacy of the plaintiff’s commencing a defamation action against others, was outside the scope of the letter of engagement.
This opinion is well-reasoned and thoughtful. It allows the lawyer to agree to perform certain services for a client, but not to perform certain other services.
Ed Clinton, Jr.