Attorney not liable to client for testimony of a witness at a deposition

In Caso v Miranda Sambursky Slone Sklarin Verveniotis LLP, 180 AD3d 611, 612-13 [1st Dept 2020], the court held that the attorney was not liable to his client for testimony of a witness at a deposition:

Plaintiff’s contention in this legal malpractice action is that Arenas should have been better “prepared” for his deposition in the underlying personal injury action, so he could “remember” the statements he made to the detective. Plaintiff claims that, had defendants not been negligent, there would have been a plaintiff’s verdict. He claims that Arenas’s testimony damaged his case and prevented him from prevailing.

“[M]ere speculation of a loss resulting from an attorney’s alleged omissions … is insufficient to sustain a claim” for legal malpractice” (Gallet, Dreyer & Berkey, LLP v. Basile, 141 A.D.3d 405, 405–406, 35 N.Y.S.3d 56 [1st Dept. 2016] [internal quotation marks omitted]; Geller v. Harris, 258 A.D.2d 421, 685 N.Y.S.2d 734 [1st Dept. 1999] ). Plaintiff’s assertion that, had Arenas been better prepared, the jury would have returned a favorable verdict is pure speculation (Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 443, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385 [2007]; Brookwood v. Alston & Bird, LLC, 146 A.D.3d 662, 49 N.Y.S.3d 10 [1st Dept. 2017]. Defendants met their burden of showing that plaintiff cannot establish causation, in that plaintiff cannot prove that it would have prevailed in the underlying action “but for” defendant’s alleged negligence in preparing Arenas for his deposition (see Rudolf v. Shayne, 8 N.Y.3d 438 at 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385).

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Brooklyn Bar Association helps attorneys improve their resumes during COVID-19

Richard Klass in white shirt speaking at Brooklyn Bar Association, helping attorneys dealing with unemployment during COVID-19 pandemic.
Richard Klass (pictured), second vice president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, moderated the panel, which included attorney Andrea Bonina and retired attorney David Sarnoff. Screenshots via Zoom

Reported by Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor
opens in a new windowBrooklyn Daily Eagle
May 26, 2020

“More than two million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and lawyers are not immune. To help laid-off attorneys and people who are simply looking for a new job, the Brooklyn Bar Association held a continuing legal education seminar to help ensure that lawyers are putting their best foot forward.

“On Monday, May 18, Richard Klass, second vice president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, moderated a two-hour CLE entitled, “Resume Building and Interview Skills” along with panelists Andrea Bonina and David Sarnoff….”

#COVID19 #BklynEagle #BrooklynBarAssoc #CourtStreetLawyer


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When Clients Don’t Pay Their Lawyers

Red text reading "Always the Last to Know" with blue text "Be Paid" superimposed over the word "know" illustrating article about legal fees.

The crisis has been averted. The lawyer did a great job for his client. The lawyer sent his client the final bill for services rendered. Unfortunately, the client now had other bills to pay and the legal problem the lawyer dealt with was starting to appear very small in the rearview mirror.

The lawyer came to Richard A. KlassYour Court Street Lawyer, to sue the client to collect on the outstanding bill.

Complaint for Legal Fees Filed against Client

The lawyer commenced an action against his client alleging several causes of action in the complaint, including:

Breach of contract: A written retainer agreement with an attorney is an enforceable contract. As held in Jacobson v Sassower, 66 NY2d 991, 993 [1985], “as a matter of public policy, courts pay particular attention to fee arrangements between attorneys and their clients. An attorney has the burden of showing that a fee contract is fair, reasonable, and fully known and understood by the client.”

Assuming that the fee arrangements were fair to the client, the lawyer may establish his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law against the client on the cause of action alleging breach of contract by submitting evidence of the existence of a contract, the lawyer’s performance under the contract, the client’s breach of the contract, and resulting damages. SeeJoseph W. Ryan, Jr., P.C. v Faibish, 136 AD3d 984 [2d Dept 2016].

Account Stated: Many times, an attorney is able to prove that he sent his client monthly invoices and the client never said one word about fees; then, when the bill comes due, the client ‘wakes up’ and starts objecting to all of the attorney’s charges.

An attorney can make out a prima facie showing of his entitlement to summary judgment on an “account stated” claim by providing documentary evidence of the invoices, and an affidavit stating that he sent the invoices on a monthly basis to defendant, and that defendant received the invoices and failed to object to the invoices until this litigation. SeeGlassman v Weinberg, 154 AD3d 407 [1st Dept 2017].

Quantum Meruit: This Latin phrase basically means that one should be paid the reasonable value of services rendered on behalf of another.

If the terms of a retainer agreement are not established, or if a client discharges an attorney without cause, the attorney may recover only in quantum meruit to the extent that the fair and reasonable value of legal services can be established. SeeSeth Rubenstein, P.C. v Ganea, 41 AD3d 54 [2d Dept 2007]. A cause of action for quantum meruit requires a showing of “a plaintiff’s performance of services in good faith, acceptance of those services by a defendant, an expectation of compensation and proof of the reasonable value of the services provided.” SeeHyman v Schwartz, 127 AD3d 1281, 1282 [3d Dept 2015].

Pre-litigation Considerations

Before an attorney files a lawsuit to recover legal fees, there are a number of considerations as to whether it is worth doing. The commencement of a lawsuit by an attorney against his client ought to be the last resort after an attempt to resolve nonpayment. While not exhaustive, some questions to ask before suing a client may be:

  • Did the attorney achieve a favorable result? While not necessarily a defense, the client in unsuccessful litigation may perceive that the attorney provided no value.
  • Is the client judgment-proof? Will any judgment actually be collectible?
  • Is there a written retainer agreement? It may be required by Uniform Rules of Court Part 1215.
  • Were contemporaneous time records kept?
  • Was the client sent detailed bills at regular intervals?
  • Has the client threatened to sue for legal malpractice? An estimated 40% to 50% of legal malpractice cases emanate from an attorney’s collection case.
  • Is the amount of unpaid fees large enough to justify bringing an action?
  • Is there a requirement for service of a notice of the availability of fee dispute arbitration under Uniform Rules of Court Part 137.
  • Is there the possibility of pursuing a charging lien on the case, or a retaining lien on the file?
  • How long has the clock been ticking on the dispute? The statutes of limitations are three years for the client to sue for legal malpractice and six years for the attorney to sue the client to collect his fees.

– Richard A. Klass, Esq.


Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn, New York. He may be reached at (718) COURT●ST or RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

© 2020 Richard A. Klass
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Once someone has sued …and the case is dismissed…

Scales of justice illustrating article about legal malpractice.

Once someone has sued another and the case is dismissed, the plaintiff’s claim is barred or precluded. In Manko v Gabay, 175 AD3d 484 [2d Dept 2019], the court held:

The plaintiff subsequently commenced the instant action against, among others, the Gabay defendants, asserting causes of action against them, inter alia, to recover damages for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. The Gabay defendants moved, inter alia, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against them. The Supreme Court granted that branch of the motion, and the plaintiff appeals.

We agree with the Supreme Court’s determination to grant that branch of the Gabay defendants’ motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against them as barred by the doctrine of res judicata, based upon the dismissal, on the merits, of the complaints insofar as asserted against them in the four prior actions. Under the doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, “a valid final judgment bars future actions between the same parties on the same cause of action” (Parker v. Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Co., 93 N.Y.2d 343, 347, 690 N.Y.S.2d 478, 712 N.E.2d 647). “[O]nce a claim is brought to a final conclusion, all other claims arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions are barred, even if based upon different theories or if seeking a different remedy” (O’Brien v. City of Syracuse, 54 N.Y.2d 353, 357, 445 N.Y.S.2d 687, 429 N.E.2d 1158).

This Court takes a “pragmatic approach” to determining what constitutes a single transaction or series of transactions for the purposes of res judicata (Coliseum Towers Assoc. v. County of Nassau, 217 A.D.2d 387, 390, 637 N.Y.S.2d 972). Thus, events are part of the same transaction or series of transactions where their “foundational facts” are related in “time, space, origin, or motivation,” where they “form a convenient trial unit,” and where “treatment [of the foundational facts] as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations” (id. at 390–391, 637 N.Y.S.2d 972 [internal quotation marks omitted] ).

The doctrine of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, is “a component of the broader doctrine of res judicata which holds that, as to the parties in a litigation and those in privity with them, a judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction is conclusive of the issues of fact and questions of law necessarily decided therein in any subsequent action” ( *133 Gramatan Home Invs. Corp. v. Lopez, 46 N.Y.2d 481, 485, 414 N.Y.S.2d 308, 386 N.E.2d 1328). Collateral estoppel will bar relitigation of an issue where “the issue in the second action is identical to an issue which was raised, necessarily decided and material in the first action, and the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the earlier action” (Parker v. Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Co., 93 N.Y.2d at 349, 690 N.Y.S.2d 478, 712 N.E.2d 647; see Jeffreys v. Griffin, 1 N.Y.3d 34, 39, 769 N.Y.S.2d 184, 801 N.E.2d 404; Pinnacle Consultants v. Leucadia Natl. Corp., 94 N.Y.2d 426, 432, 706 N.Y.S.2d 46, 727 N.E.2d 543).

Here, the complaints in the four prior actions commenced by the plaintiff against the Gabay defendants were all dismissed insofar as asserted against them on the merits pursuant to the order dated May 7, 2012. The claims asserted in the instant action arise from the same transaction or series of transactions that gave rise to the four prior actions, i.e., the legal assistance provided by Gabay to the plaintiff from November 2007 to December 2007. The majority of the facts alleged in the five complaints are nearly identical, with the only differences being additional causes of action asserted in this action and different entities named as defendants of which Gabay is a principal, differences which nonetheless relate “in time, space, origin [and] motivation” to the claims adjudicated in the four prior actions (Xiao Yang Chen v. Fischer, 6 N.Y.3d 94, 100, 810 N.Y.S.2d 96, 843 N.E.2d 723 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Smith v. Russell Sage Coll., 54 N.Y.2d 185, 192–193, 445 N.Y.S.2d 68, 429 N.E.2d 746). Inasmuch as all issues related to the plaintiff’s claims sounding in simple legal malpractice were fully and finally decided in the four prior actions, they are barred by principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel (see Kret v. Brookdale Hosp. Med. Ctr., 61 N.Y.2d 861, 863, 473 N.Y.S.2d 970, 462 N.E.2d 147; see also Altamore v. Friedman, 193 A.D.2d 240, 244–245, 602 N.Y.S.2d 894). The plaintiff’s additional causes of action alleging, among other things, deprivation of constitutional rights and conspiracy “could have been raised in the prior litigation” and, consequently, are precluded by the doctrine of res judicata (Matter of Hunter, 4 N.Y.3d 260, 269, 794 N.Y.S.2d 286, 827 N.E.2d 269; see Rowley, Forrest, O’Donnell & Beaumont, P.C. v. Beechnut Nutrition Corp., 55 A.D.3d 982, 984, 865 N.Y.S.2d 390).

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Standard on deciding motions to dismiss

In a decision reminding defendants of the standard on deciding motions to dismiss, the court in Jadidian v Drucker, 2019 NY Slip Op 03033 [2d Dept Apr. 24, 2019] held:

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 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 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.

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[ motions to dismiss ]

Critical to a legal malpractice action that the plaintiff prove the “ case within a case ”

It is critical to a legal malpractice action that the plaintiff prove the “ case within a case ” in order to sue an attorney. In Salans LLP v VBH Properties S.R.L., 2019 NY Slip Op 02611 [1st Dept Apr. 4, 2019], the court held:

plaintiff demonstrated prima facie entitlement to judgment in the legal malpractice counterclaim by showing that defendants could not prove that but for plaintiff’s failure to appear at the TRO hearing the hearing court would have denied the TRO or set a shorter return date (see Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP v. Fashion Boutique of Short Hills, Inc., 10 A.D.3d 267, 272, 780 N.Y.S.2d 593 [1st Dept. 2004] [holding that to establish a claim for litigation malpractice the client “ must meet the ‘ case within a case ’ requirement, demonstrating that ‘ but for ’ the attorney’s conduct the client would have prevailed in the underlying matter or would not have sustained any ascertainable damages ”] ). Defendants speculate that had plaintiff appeared at the TRO hearing, injunctive relief may have been denied or the hearing court may have adjourned the case to an earlier date. Such speculation is insufficient to sustain a claim for legal malpractice (see Freeman v. Brecher, 155 A.D.3d 453, 453, 64 N.Y.S.3d 13 [1st Dept. 2017]; Brooks v. Lewin, 21 A.D.3d 731, 734–735, 800 N.Y.S.2d 695 [1st Dept. 2005], lv denied 6 N.Y.3d 713, 816 N.Y.S.2d 749, 849 N.E.2d 972 [2006] ).

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Defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case

Bakcheva v Law Offices of Stein & Assoc., 2019 NY Slip Op 00844 [2d Dept Feb. 6, 2019] is a good reminder that a defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case. The court held:

A plaintiff seeking to recover damages for legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession, and that the breach of this duty proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (see McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301–302, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; Biberaj v. Acocella, 120 A.D.3d 1285, 1286, 993 N.Y.S.2d 64). A defendant seeking summary judgment dismissing a legal malpractice cause of action has the burden of establishing prima facie that he or she did not fail to exercise such skill and knowledge, or that the claimed departure did not proximately cause the plaintiff to sustain damages (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d 959, 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118; Betz v. Blatt, 160 A.D.3d 696, 698, 74 N.Y.S.3d 75). The defendant must affirmatively demonstrate the merits of a defense, rather than merely pointing out gaps in the plaintiff’s proof (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d at 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118).

We agree with the Supreme Court that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the legal malpractice cause of action. Although the defendants established their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact in opposition. Specifically, the plaintiff submitted evidence that she had informed the defendants, prior to the closing, that the main portion of the apartment was on the seventh floor of the building and that the apartment included a second level. According to the plaintiff, the defendants committed malpractice because they failed to recognize the illegality of the second level, since neither the certificate of occupancy nor the approved condominium offering plan authorized the existence of an eighth floor to the condominium.

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Appellate court reversed the court order dismissing the action on the law firm’s motion to dismiss.

In an action by a client against a law firm for legal malpractice, the appellate court reversed the court order dismissing the action on the law firm’s motion to dismiss. The court held:

“ To state a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must allege: (1) that the attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession; and (2) that the attorney’s breach of the duty proximately caused the plaintiff actual and ascertainable damages ” (Dempster v. Liotti, 86 A.D.3d 169, 176, 924 N.Y.S.2d 484 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Leder v. Spiegel, 9 N.Y.3d 836, 837, 840 N.Y.S.2d 888, 872 N.E.2d 1194). Here, accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and according the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, the plaintiff stated a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice (see Tooma v. Grossbarth, 121 A.D.3d at 1095–1096, 995 N.Y.S.2d 593; Endless Ocean, LLC v. Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo, 113 A.D.3d 587, 589, 979 N.Y.S.2d 84; Reynolds v. Picciano, 29 A.D.2d 1012, 1012, 289 N.Y.S.2d 436). The evidentiary submissions did not establish that a material fact alleged in the complaint is not a fact at all and that no significant dispute exists regarding it (see Bodden v. Kean, 86 A.D.3d at 526, 927 N.Y.S.2d 137). Contrary to the defendants’ contention, the plaintiff was entitled to commence this legal malpractice action even though the underlying personal injury action was still pending, as the legal malpractice action accrued, at the latest, in November 2014 (see Johnston v. Raskin, 193 A.D.2d 786, 787, 598 N.Y.S.2d 272).

Lopez v Lozner & Mastropietro, P.C., 166 AD3d 871 [2d Dept 2018]

 

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…client’s allegations were previously addressed in a prior matter.

In Knox v Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, 2018 NY Slip Op 09030 [1st Dept Dec. 27, 2018], the court dismissed a legal malpractice case where the client’s allegations were previously addressed in a prior matter.  The court held:

Supreme Court properly dismissed plaintiff’s complaint as against FBK, since the only claim asserted, a legal malpractice claim, is barred by the doctrine of res judicata (see Matter of Hunter, 4 N.Y.3d 260, 269, 794 N.Y.S.2d 286, 827 N.E.2d 269 [2005] ).  Plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim is based on the same conduct that was the basis of the counterclaim previously dismissed by Supreme Court Westchester County.  Res judicata bars all claims “ arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions … even if based upon different theories or if seeking a different remedy ” (Jumax Assoc. v. 350 Cabrini Owners Corp., 110 A.D.3d 622, 623, 973 N.Y.S.2d 631 [1st Dept. 2013] [internal quotation marks omitted], lv denied 23 N.Y.3d 907, 2014 WL 2922240 [2014]).  Contrary to plaintiff’s contention, the dismissal in the Westchester action was on the merits.  The order addressed the merits of the counterclaim, dismissing it on the basis of the settlement and the custody decision in the matrimonial action (see Plaza PH2001 LLC v. Plaza Residential Owner LP, 98 A.D.3d 89, 98, 947 N.Y.S.2d 498 [1st Dept. 2012] ).

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Statute of Limitations for Causes of Action Alleging Legal Malpractice

The Second Department, in Potenza v Giaimo, 165 AD3d 1186, 1187 [2d Dept 2018], dismissed a client’s legal malpractice action against his attorney based upon the statute of limitations. The court held:

The statute of limitations for causes of action alleging legal malpractice is three years (see CPLR 214[6]; Alizio v. Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 126 A.D.3d 733, 735, 5 N.Y.S.3d 252). A cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice accrues when the malpractice is committed (see Shumsky v. Eisenstein, 96 N.Y.2d 164, 166, 726 N.Y.S.2d 365, 750 N.E.2d 67). However, pursuant to the doctrine of continuous representation, the limitations period is tolled until the attorney’s continuing representation of the client with regard to the particular matter terminates (see Shumsky v. Eisenstein, 96 N.Y.2d at 167–168, 726 N.Y.S.2d 365, 750 N.E.2d 67; Aqua–Trol Corp. v. Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, P.A., 144 A.D.3d 956, 957, 42 N.Y.S.3d 56). For the continuous representation doctrine to apply, “ there must be clear indicia of an ongoing, continuous, developing, and dependent relationship between the client and the attorney which often includes an attempt by the attorney to rectify an alleged act of malpractice ” (Luk Lamellen U. Kupplungbau GmbH v. Lerner, 166 A.D.2d 505, 506–507, 560 N.Y.S.2d 787).

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