Where former client sues for legal malpractice but previously filed for bankruptcy

Where the former client sues for legal malpractice but has previously filed for bankruptcy, there must be an evaluation as to whether the legal malpractice claim is part of the bankruptcy estate or if the former client may pursue the action, as held in Gobindram v Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 2019 NY Slip Op 06190 [2d Dept Aug. 21, 2019]:

We find unpersuasive the defendants’ additional alternative contention that the legal malpractice cause of action was properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(3) because that cause of action belongs to the bankruptcy estate and the plaintiff lacked standing to assert it. “ On a defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based upon the plaintiff’s alleged lack of standing, the burden is on the moving defendant to establish, prima facie, the plaintiff’s lack of standing ” (BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP v. Rychik, 161 A.D.3d 924, 925, 77 N.Y.S.3d 522; see CPLR 3211[a][3]; MLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d 881, 881–882). “ [T]he motion will be defeated if the plaintiff’s submissions raise a question of fact as to its standing ” (U.S. Bank N.A. v. Clement, 163 A.D.3d 742, 743, 81 N.Y.S.3d 116 [internal quotation marks omitted]; seeMLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d at 882, 50 N.Y.S.3d 410).

Here, in response to the defendants’ prima facie showing that the plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action was the property of the bankruptcy estate (seeWright v. Meyers & Spencer, LLP, 46 A.D.3d 805, 849 N.Y.S.2d 274; Williams v. Stein, 6 A.D.3d 197, 198, 775 N.Y.S.2d 255; In re Strada Design Assoc., Inc., 326 B.R. 229, 237–240 [S.D. N.Y.]), the plaintiff raised a question of fact as to whether the bankruptcy trustee had abandoned the cause of action in accordance with Bankruptcy Code (11 USC) § 554(a) and had authorized the plaintiff to pursue it. Accordingly, dismissal of the legal malpractice cause of action for lack of standing is not available at this juncture.

R. A. Klass
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If attorney has violated a disciplinary rule…

If an attorney has been determined to have violated a disciplinary rule, the client may seek to have the attorney’s fees forfeited. In Baugher v Cullen and Dykman, LLP, 173 AD3d 959 [2d Dept 2019], court held:

“ An attorney who violates a disciplinary rule may be discharged for cause and is not entitled to fees for any services rendered ” (Jay Deitz & Assoc. of Nassau County, Ltd. v. Breslow & Walker, LLP, 153 A.D.3d 503, 506, 59 N.Y.S.3d 443; seeMatter of Montgomery, 272 N.Y. 323, 326, 6 N.E.2d 40; Saint Annes Dev. Co. v. Batista, 165 A.D.3d 997, 998, 85 N.Y.S.3d 145; Doviak v. Finkelstein & Partners, LLP, 90 A.D.3d 696, 699, 934 N.Y.S.2d 467; Quinn v. Walsh, 18 A.D.3d 638, 795 N.Y.S.2d 647; Brill v. Friends World Coll., 133 A.D.2d 729, 520 N.Y.S.2d 160). A cause of action for forfeiture of legal fees based on an attorney’s discharge for cause due to ethical violations may be maintained independent of a cause of action alleging legal malpractice or breach of fiduciary duty, and does not require proof or allegations of damages (seeJay Deitz & Assoc. of Nassau County, Ltd. v. Breslow & Walker, LLP, 153 A.D.3d at 506, 59 N.Y.S.3d 443; Ulico Cas. Co. v. Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, 56 A.D.3d 1, 865 N.Y.S.2d 14).

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…the client must prove that he sustained damages….

Once the defendant-law firm has moved for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint, the client must prove that he sustained damages. See, Nill v Schneider, 173 AD3d 753 [2d Dept 2019]:

A plaintiff in an action alleging legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney’s failure to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Sang Seok NA v. Schietroma, 163 A.D.3d 597, 598, 79 N.Y.S.3d 636). “ An attorney’s conduct or inaction is the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s damages if but for the attorney’s negligence, the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action, or would not have sustained actual and ascertainable damages ” (Nomura Asset Capital Corp. v. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, 26 N.Y.3d 40, 50, 19 N.Y.S.3d 488, 41 N.E.3d 353 [citation and internal quotation marks omitted]; see Richmond Holdings, LLC v. David S. Frankel, P.C., 150 A.D.3d 1168, 1168, 52 N.Y.S.3d 672).

“ It is a defendant’s burden, when it is the party moving for summary judgment, to demonstrate affirmatively the merits of a defense, which cannot be sustained by pointing out gaps in the plaintiff’s proof ” (Quantum Corporate Funding, Ltd. v. Ellis, 126 A.D.3d 866, 871, 6 N.Y.S.3d 255). Once a defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d 959, 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118; Valley Ventures, LLC v. Joseph J. Haspel, PLLC, 102 A.D.3d 955, 956, 958 N.Y.S.2d 604).

Here, the defendant met her prima facie burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff did not sustain actual and ascertainable damages proximately caused by the defendant’s alleged negligent representation (see Harris v. Barbera, 163 A.D.3d 534, 536, 79 N.Y.S.3d 643; Panos v. Eisen, 160 A.D.3d 759, 760, 75 N.Y.S.3d 69; Kaloakas Mgt. Corp. v. Lawrence & Walsh, P.C., 157 A.D.3d at 779, 66 N.Y.S.3d 897). The evidentiary submissions established that the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages was the occurrence of a tree falling on the subject property during Hurricane Sandy, and not any claimed failure on the part of the defendant to discover, prior to the closing, any alleged discrepancy between the certificate of existing use and the 2007 survey of the subject property (see Excelsior Capitol LLC v. K & L Gates LLP, 138 A.D.3d 492, 492, 29 N.Y.S.3d 320; cf. Esposito v. Noto, 132 A.D.3d 944, 946, 19 N.Y.S.3d 300). In opposition, the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact. Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting the defendant’s cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the amended complaint insofar as asserted against her. For these same reasons, we agree with the court’s determination denying the plaintiff’s motion, inter alia, for summary judgment on the issue of liability.

R. A. Klass
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Sometimes, a lawsuit is dismissed based upon the concept of claim preclusion…

Sometimes, a lawsuit is dismissed based upon the concept of claim preclusion or collateral estoppel, which was defined by the court in Sang Seok Na v Schietroma, 172 AD3d 1263 [2d Dept 2019]:

“ The doctrine of collateral estoppel, a narrower species of res judicata, precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue clearly raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party or those in privity, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same ” (Ryan v. New York Tel. Co., 62 N.Y.2d 494, 500, 478 N.Y.S.2d 823, 467 N.E.2d 487). The doctrine of collateral estoppel applies when: “ (1) the issues in both proceedings are identical, (2) the issue in the prior proceeding was actually litigated and decided, (3) there was a full and fair opportunity to litigate in the prior proceeding, and (4) the issue previously litigated was necessary to support a valid and final judgment on the merits ” (Conason v. Megan Holding, LLC, 25 N.Y.3d 1, 17, 6 N.Y.S.3d 206, 29 N.E.3d 215 [internal quotation marks omitted] ).

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“Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”

Simon & Garfunkel,
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

Rabbit with yellow fur standing next to gray and yellow turtle illustrating article by Richard Klass about nonresident plaintiffs posting Security for Costs.

A foreign company sued a New York State resident, seeking to force the sale of his house in order to satisfy its judgment.  The company existed under New Jersey law with a New Jersey corporate address.  The house was located in Nassau County.

Petition to Sell House

The judgment creditor’s petition to sell real property alleged that there was sufficient equity in the house exceeding the homestead exemption and existing mortgage lien.  The petition further alleged that attempts to execute on the judgment debtor’s personal property failed and the creditor had otherwise been unable to satisfy its judgment.  Combined, these allegations would normally be enough to satisfy the pleading requirements under CPLR 5203, 5206 and 5238.

In response to the petition, the debtor/homeowner retained Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer, to defend the proceeding in order to retain his house.  The defenses put up included the fact that the mortgage lender had already begun foreclosure proceedings and there was a question as to the validity of the claim that there was any net equity in the property.  Further, since the house was owned by the debtor with his wife as a “ tenancy by the entirety, ” the house could not be sold without consideration of her property rights.

Stopping the Creditor in its tracks

Sometimes, a debtor needs a respite from the continual attacks by creditors.  One way to accomplish this is by a bankruptcy filing, in which the automatic stay imposed upon filing stops the pecking at a debtor’s assets by creditors.  Another way to slow down a creditor is to temporarily stay the lawsuit while the debtor and his family “ circle the wagons ” to either gather up strong defenses or develop an orderly plan in which debts will be repaid or settled.  An effective method of getting this pause is by requesting that the judge stay the lawsuit of a non-New York State creditor until the plaintiff/creditor posts security for the costs of the action.

Security for Costs

New York court rules require nonresident plaintiffs maintaining lawsuits in New York courts to post security for the costs for which they would be liable if their lawsuits were unsuccessful.  CPLR 8501(a) provides that, “ except where the plaintiff has been granted permission to proceed as a poor person or is the petitioner in a habeas corpus proceeding, upon motion by the defendant without notice, the court or judge thereof shall order security for costs to be given by the plaintiffs where none of them is a domestic corporation, a foreign corporation licensed to do business in the state or a resident of the state when the motion is made. ” CPLR 8502 provides that until security for costs is given pursuant to court order, all proceedings other than to review or vacate such order shall be stayed, and that if the plaintiff shall not have given security for costs at the expiration of 30 days from the date of the order, the court may dismiss the complaint upon motion by the defendant.

Security for costs is a device ordinarily used against a nonresident plaintiff to make sure if he loses the case, he will not return home and leave the defendant with a costs judgment that can be enforced only in the plaintiff’s home state.  By directing a nonresident to post a bond, the defendant is protected from frivolous lawsuits and is assured that, if successful, he will be able to recover costs from the plaintiff.

In rebuffing a challenge to the constitutionality of the requirement of security for costs imposed upon a nonresident plaintiff, the court in Clement v. Durban, 147 AD3d 39 [2016] aff’d 32 NY3d 337 [2018] cert denied 139 S.Ct. 2649 [2019] held that the court rules do not deprive nonresident plaintiffs of reasonable and adequate access to New York courts and, thus, are constitutional.  Where nonresidents are subject to different treatment than New York residents, there must be reasonable grounds for diversity of treatment (so as to prevent discrimination against citizens of other states).  Disparity of treatment of nonresidents is permitted in situations where there are valid, independent reasons for it; in this situation, deterring frivolous or harassing lawsuits and preventing prevailing defendants from having to chase plaintiffs into foreign jurisdictions to collect their judgments are considered valid reasons.

Upon motion by the defendant requesting that the plaintiff post a bond as security for costs, the judge granted the motion and directed the nonresident plaintiff to post security in the amount of $10,000 for costs.  The plaintiff did not do so within the 30 day period after the order and, accordingly, the court dismissed the lawsuit.

Richard A. Klass, Esq.

©2019 Richard A. Klass. Credits: Photo of Richard Klass by Rob Abruzzese, 2019. Marketing agency: The Innovation Works, Inc. (www.TheInnovationWorks.com)  Image at top of page: Shutterstock

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[ nonresident plaintiffs ]

Legal malpractice case could not proceed since damages claim was speculative.

In Miami Capital, LLC v Hurwitz, 101 NYS3d 598 [1st Dept 2019], the court determined that the client’s legal malpractice case could not proceed since the damages claim was speculative, holding:

Defendant’s motion was properly granted because while plaintiff anticipates that it could be subject to a rescission claim at some point in the future, such alleged damages are purely speculative and not yet ripe. Since damages in a legal malpractice case are designed “ to make the injured client whole ” (Campagnola v. Mulholland, Minion & Roe, 76 N.Y.2d 38, 42, 556 N.Y.S.2d 239, 555 N.E.2d 611 [1990] ), having failed to plead actual damages, plaintiff’s complaint fails to state a claim (see Heritage Partners, LLC v. Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, 133 A.D.3d 428, 19 N.Y.S.3d 511 [1st Dept. 2015], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 904, 2016 WL 1692057 [2016]; Lavanant v. General Acc. Ins. Co. of Am., 212 A.D.2d 450, 622 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1st Dept. 1995] ).

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Court denied the law firm’s motion to dismiss

In Jadidian v Drucker, 171 AD3d 1146, 1147-48 [2d Dept 2019], the court denied the law firm’s motion to dismiss the complaint, holding:

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), the court must afford the pleading a liberal construction, accept all facts as alleged to be true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference, and determine only whether the *1148 facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see CPLR 3026; Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511; Santaiti v. Town of Ramapo, 162 A.D.3d 921, 924–925, 80 N.Y.S.3d 288; Berlin v. DeMarzo, 150 A.D.3d 1185, 52 N.Y.S.3d 878). A cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice requires proof that the defendant “ failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession ” and that the attorney’s breach of this duty proximately caused plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Dombrowski v. Bulson, 19 N.Y.3d 347, 350, 948 N.Y.S.2d 208, 971 N.E.2d 338; Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385).

Here, accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and according the plaintiffs the benefit of every possible favorable inference, the complaint sufficiently alleges a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice. The complaint alleges that the defendant failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession by failing to account for the potential outcome of the nuisance action on the use and occupancy of the premises and to protect the plaintiffs’ interests in relation thereto. The complaint further alleges that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the plaintiffs to sustain actual and ascertainable damages in lost rent and in settling the action brought by the Hive, and thus, validly states a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d at 443, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Bua v. Purcell & Ingrao, P.C., 99 A.D.3d 843, 847, 952 N.Y.S.2d 592; Wolstencroft v. Sassower, 124 A.D.2d 582, 507 N.Y.S.2d 728). Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s denial of that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the complaint.

Dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) is warranted only if the documentary evidence “ utterly refutes plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law ” (Goshen v. Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 N.Y.2d 314, 326, 746 N.Y.S.2d 858, 774 N.E.2d 1190; see Kolchins v. Evolution Mkts., Inc., 31 N.Y.3d 100, 106, 73 N.Y.S.3d 519, 96 N.E.3d 784; Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511). Here, the documentary evidence submitted by the defendant **76 failed to utterly refute the plaintiff’s factual allegations. Accordingly, we also agree with the Supreme Court’s denial of that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the complaint.

R. A. Klass
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Duplicative causes of action against an attorney

When a client alleges duplicative causes of action against an attorney based upon different theories of liability, the court can dismiss those duplicative causes of action.

“ To state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a fiduciary relationship, misconduct by the other party, and damages directly caused by that party’s misconduct ” (Castellotti v Free, 138 AD3d 198, 209 [1st Dept 2016]). “ [A] fiduciary relationship arises between two persons when one of them is under a duty to act or give advice for the benefit of another upon matters within the scope of the relation ” (Oddo Asset Mgt. v Barclays Bank PLC, 19 NY3d 584, 593-594 [2012], rearg denied 19 NY3d 1065 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). The existence of a duty is essential and may not be imposed unilaterally (see Marmelstein v Kehillat New Hempstead: The Rav Aron Jofen Community Synagogue, 45 AD3d 33, 36-37 [1st Dept 2008], affd 11 NY3d 15 [2008]). Whether a fiduciary relationship exists involves a fact-specific inquiry (see EBC I, Inc. v Goldman Sachs & Co., 5 NY3d 11, 19 [2005]). A claim for breach of fiduciary duty also requires “ the violation of some duty due to an individual, which duty is a thing different from a mere contractual obligation ” (see Batas v Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 281 AD2d 260, 264 [1st Dept 2001] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).

A breach of fiduciary duty claim is duplicative of a legal malpractice claim when both are based upon the same facts and seek the same damages (see Barrett v Goldstein, 161 AD3d 472, 473 [1st Dept 2018]; accord Cohen, 115 AD3d at 513). As applied herein, plaintiff has established that the fiduciary duty counterclaim is grounded upon the same facts as the legal malpractice counterclaim. Defendant has neither attempted to distinguish the two counterclaims nor addressed why the second counterclaim should not be dismissed.

Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. v Pollack, 63 Misc 3d 1229(A) [Sup Ct 2019]

 

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[ duplicative causes of action ]

…Court held that collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) barred a legal malpractice action

In Sang Seok Na v Schietroma, 2019 NY Slip Op 04017 [2d Dept May 22, 2019], court held that collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) barred a legal malpractice action, holding:

A plaintiff in an action alleging legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney’s failure to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession proximately caused the plaintiff to suffer damages (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Sang Seok NA v. Schietroma, 163 A.D.3d at 598, 79 N.Y.S.3d 636). To establish proximate causation, the plaintiff must show that he or she would have prevailed in the underlying action or would not have incurred any damages, but for the defendant attorney’s negligence (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d at 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Kluczka v. Lecci, 63 A.D.3d 796, 797, 880 N.Y.S.2d 698).

Here, the Schietroma defendants established their entitlement to summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that this action was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel (see Karimian v. Time Equities, Inc., 164 A.D.3d 486, 489, 83 N.Y.S.3d 227). “ The doctrine of collateral estoppel, a narrower species of res judicata, precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue clearly raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party or those in privity, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same ” (Ryan v. New York Tel. Co., 62 N.Y.2d 494, 500, 478 N.Y.S.2d 823, 467 N.E.2d 487). The doctrine of collateral estoppel applies when: “ (1) the issues in both proceedings are identical, (2) the issue in the prior proceeding was actually litigated and decided, (3) there was a full and fair opportunity to litigate in the prior proceeding, and (4) the issue previously litigated was necessary to support a valid and final judgment on the merits ” (Conason v. Megan Holding, LLC, 25 N.Y.3d 1, 17, 6 N.Y.S.3d 206, 29 N.E.3d 215 [internal quotation marks omitted] ).

In order for the plaintiff to recover damages for legal malpractice against the Schietroma defendants based on their alleged failure to advise him of a potential legal malpractice claim against S & M, the plaintiff must prove that he would have prevailed in a legal malpractice action against S & M, but for the Schietroma defendants’ negligence. In order for the plaintiff to prevail in a legal malpractice action against S & M, the plaintiff must prove that he would have prevailed in the Greyhound action, but for S & M’s negligence.

The issue of whether the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits in the Greyhound action was raised, necessarily decided, and material in the first legal malpractice action, and the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in that action (see Sang Seok NA v. Schietroma, 163 A.D.3d 597, 79 N.Y.S.3d 636). Thus, the Schietroma defendants established, as a matter of law, that their alleged negligence did not proximately cause the plaintiff’s damages by showing that the plaintiff would not have prevailed in a legal malpractice action against S & M, and that they were entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel (see generally Lamberti v. Plaza Equities, LLC, 161 A.D.3d 841, 841–842, 73 N.Y.S.3d 901; Matter of Trump Vil. Apts. One Owner v. New York State Div. of Hous. & Community Renewal, 143 A.D.3d 996, 40 N.Y.S.3d 157). Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination to grant the Schietroma defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

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It is important for a retainer agreement…

It is important for a retainer agreement to set forth the tasks that the attorney will perform on behalf of the client, as well as those which are outside of the tasks to be performed. This was emphasized in the following decision of Keld v Giddins Claman, LLP, 170 AD3d 589 [1st Dept 2019]:

The retainer agreement entered into by plaintiff and defendant law firm constitutes documentary evidence which utterly refutes plaintiff’s claims (see generally Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511 [1994]; CPLR 3211[a][1] ). The scope of services defendant was to provide plaintiff in connection with her purchase of a condominium unit was clearly limited by the retainer agreement. The retainer agreement enumerated the legal services defendants would provide including the review, preparation, and/or negotiation of specific documents related to the closing and the investigation and analysis of issues relating to title. Plaintiff’s allegation that the agreement required defendants to manage all aspects of the purchase including advising on inspections for safety, quality of renovation and environmental issues is without merit. These duties are outside the scope of the retainer (see AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 435, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d 1033 [2007] ). Thus, plaintiff cannot maintain a legal malpractice claim against defendants.

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[ retainer agreement ]