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.

R. A. Klass
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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]

 

R. A. Klass
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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] ).

R. A. Klass
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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).

R. A. Klass
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Client alleged attorney failed to provide legal advice … immigration consequences

The First Department kept a legal malpractice case alive and partially denied the attorney’s motion to dismiss action, where the client alleged that the attorney failed to provide legal advice. In Sehgal v DiRaimondo, 165 AD3d 435, 436-37 [1st Dept 2018], the court held:

We affirm dismissal of part of the malpractice claim on alternative grounds. Plaintiff’s claim that he pleaded guilty to criminal charges in reliance on defendants’ negligent legal advice concerning the immigration consequences of the plea is barred by his guilty plea and lack of any claim of innocence (Carmel v. Lunney, 70 N.Y.2d 169, 173, 518 N.Y.S.2d 605, 511 N.E.2d 1126 [1987]; Yong Wong Park v. Wolff & Samson, P.C., 56 A.D.3d 351, 867 N.Y.S.2d 424 [1st Dept. 2008], lv denied 12 N.Y.3d 704, 876 N.Y.S.2d 705, 904 N.E.2d 842 [2009] ). However, the policy underlying the rule established in Carmel v. Lunney, supra, does not require dismissal of the entirety of plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim, because the remainder of his claim that defendants failed to advise him of the potential immigration consequences of traveling outside the United States as a result of entering a guilty plea does not dispute the validity of his conviction (see generally Carmel v. Lunney, supra; see also Bass & Ullman v. Chanes, 185 A.D.2d 750, 586 N.Y.S.2d 610 [1st Dept. 1992] ). Further, plaintiff’s allegations that he relied on defendants’ faulty legal advice concerning the immigration consequences of his guilty plea in deciding to travel abroad after he pled guilty, resulting in his being detained and subjected to removal proceedings, state a valid cause of action for legal malpractice. Defendants’ other arguments present disputed factual issues concerning the standard of care and proximate cause that are not properly resolved on a motion to dismiss the complaint (see Urias v. Daniel P. Buttafuoco & Assoc., PLLC, 120 A.D.3d 1339, 1343, 992 N.Y.S.2d 552 [2d Dept. 2014] ).

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Judiciary Law Section 487

In an action involving Judiciary Law Section 487, the court considered the issue as to what type of matter fits into the definition in the statute, holding:

Contrary to the defendants’ contention, the cause of action alleging a violation of Judiciary Law Section 487 was not duplicative of the cause of action alleging legal malpractice. “ A violation of Judiciary Law Section 487 requires an intent to deceive, whereas a legal malpractice claim is based on negligent conduct ” (Moormann v Perini & Hoerger, 65 AD3d 1106, 1108 [2009] [citation omitted]; see Lauder v Goldhamer, 122 AD3d 908, 911 [2014]; Sabalza v Salgado, 85 AD3d 436, 438 [2011]).

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court should have granted that branch of the defendants’ motion which was for summary judgment dismissing the cause of action alleging a violation of Judiciary Law Section 487. A chronic extreme pattern of legal delinquency is not a basis for liability pursuant to Judiciary Law Section 487 (see Dupree v Voorhees, 102 AD3d 912, 913 [2013]). Further, the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts demonstrating that the defendant attorneys had the “ intent to deceive the court or any party ” (Judiciary Law Section 487 [1]; see Schiller v Bender, Burrows & Rosenthal, LLP, 116 AD3d 756, 759 [2014]; Agostini v Sobol, 304 AD2d 395, 396 [2003]). Allegations regarding an act of deceit or intent to deceive must be stated with particularity (see CPLR 3016 [b]; Facebook, Inc. v DLA Piper LLP [US], 134 AD3d 610, 615 [2015]; Armstrong v Blank Rome LLP, 126 AD3d 427 [2015]; Putnam County Temple & Jewish Ctr., Inc. v Rhinebeck Sav. Bank, 87 AD3d 1118, 1120 [2011]). That the defendants commenced the underlying action on behalf of the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs failed to prevail in that action does not provide a basis for a cause of action alleging a violation of Judiciary Law Section 487 to recover the legal fees incurred.

Bill Birds, Inc. v Stein Law Firm, P.C., 164 AD3d 635, 637 [2d Dept 2018]

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On a motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action…

In Garcia v Polsky, Shouldice & Rosen, P.C., 161 AD3d 828 [2d Dept 2018], the Second Department held that the law firm’s motion to dismiss its former client’s lawsuit for legal malpractice was properly denied by the Supreme Court.

” …On a motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action… “

“ On a motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, the court must accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory ” (Shah v. Exxis, Inc., 138 A.D.3d 970, 971, 31 N.Y.S.3d 512; see Goshen v. Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 N.Y.2d at 326, 746 N.Y.S.2d 858, 774 N.E.2d 1190; Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511). “ In opposition to such a motion, a plaintiff may submit affidavits to remedy defects in the complaint and preserve inartfully pleaded, but potentially meritorious claims ” (Cron v. Hargro Fabrics, 91 N.Y.2d 362, 366, 670 N.Y.S.2d 973, 694 N.E.2d 56 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Nilazra, Inc. v. Karakus, Inc., 136 A.D.3d 994, 995, 25 N.Y.S.3d 650). “ Where evidentiary material is submitted and considered on a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), and the motion is not converted into one for summary judgment, the question becomes whether the plaintiff has a cause of action, not whether the plaintiff has stated one, and unless it has been shown that a material fact as claimed by the plaintiff to be one is not a fact at all and unless it can be said that no significant dispute exists regarding it, dismissal should not eventuate ” (Rabos v. R & R Bagels & Bakery, Inc., 100 A.D.3d 849, 851–852, 955 N.Y.S.2d 109; see Guggenheimer v. Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d 268, 274–275, 401 N.Y.S.2d 182, 372 N.E.2d 17).

5   “ Whether the complaint will later survive a motion for summary judgment, *427 or whether the plaintiff will ultimately be able to prove its claims, of course, plays no part in the determination of a prediscovery CPLR 3211 motion to dismiss ” (Shaya B. Pac., LLC v. Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP, 38 A.D.3d 34, 38, 827 N.Y.S.2d 231; see EBC I, Inc. v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 5 N.Y.3d 11, 19, 799 N.Y.S.2d 170, 832 N.E.2d 26).

6 7   “ In an action to recover damages for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the attorney ‘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 ” (Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385, quoting McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714). “ To establish causation, a plaintiff must show that he or she would have prevailed in the underlying action or would not have incurred any damages, but for the lawyer’s negligence ” (Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d at 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385).

8   Here, the law firm submitted documentary evidence in support of the motion establishing that its representation of the plaintiff was limited to his Workers’ Compensation claim. That submission did not utterly refute the plaintiff’s allegations, as augmented by his affidavit submitted in opposition to the motion, that the law firm gave him inaccurate legal advice. Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly denied that branch of the defendants’ motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the cause of action alleging legal malpractice insofar as asserted against the law firm.

Moreover, the complaint, as augmented by the plaintiff’s affidavit, sufficiently pleaded a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice against the law firm. The evidentiary submissions did not show that the material facts claimed by the plaintiff to be facts were not facts at all and that no significant dispute exists regarding them. Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly denied that branch of the defendants’ motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the cause of action alleging legal malpractice insofar as asserted against the law firm.

R. A. Klass
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When plaintiff fails to include a particular claim and seeks to amend the complaint

Sometimes, a plaintiff will fail to include a particular claim against a defendant and will seek to amend the complaint to include the claim. However, if the amendment of the complaint does not assert a cause of action against the defendant on the new claim, the court may deny the motion. In Panos v Eisen, 160 AD3d 759 [2d Dept 2018], the court held:

The Supreme Court should have denied that branch of the plaintiff’s cross motion which was for leave to amend the complaint to assert a cause of action against the defendants to recover damages for breach of fiduciary duty. “ Although leave to amend a pleading should be freely given in the absence of prejudice or surprise to the opposing party (see CPLR 3025 [b] ), the motion should be denied where the proposed amendment is palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit ” (APF Mgt. Co., LLC v. Munn, 151 A.D.3d 668, 670, 56 N.Y.S.3d 514). Here, the plaintiff proposed to amend the complaint to assert a cause of action against the defendants to recover damages for breach of fiduciary duty. However, this cause of action is based on the same underlying facts as the legal malpractice cause of action and does not allege distinct damages. Therefore, the proposed breach of fiduciary duty cause of action was duplicative of the legal malpractice cause of action (see Schwartz v. Leaf, Salzman, Manganelli, Pfiel & Tendler, LLP, 123 A.D.3d 901, 902, 999 N.Y.S.2d 444; Keness v. Feldman, Kramer & Monaco, P.C., 105 A.D.3d 812, 813–814, 963 N.Y.S.2d 313; Kvetnaya v. Tylo, 49 A.D.3d 608, 609, 854 N.Y.S.2d 425).

R. A. Klass
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Underlying claim based upon speculation and could not be sustained

…claim based upon speculation…

In an action brought by a former client against his attorneys, the court determined that the complaint failed to state a cause of action. The court found that, while the complaint could be amended, the underlying claim was based upon speculation and could not be sustained. The court held,

“Nevertheless, the amended complaint must be dismissed, because plaintiff’s claim that, but for defendants’ negligence, he would have recovered the full $3 million that he was owed during the bankruptcy filed by nonparty Majestic Capital, Ltd., consists of “ gross speculations on future events ” (Sherwood Group v. Dornbush, Mensch, Mandelstam & Silverman, 191 A.D.2d 292, 294, 594 N.Y.S.2d 766 [1st Dept. 1993]; see also 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, 36 N.Y.S.3d 616, 56 N.E.3d 896 [2016]; Turk v. Angel, 293 A.D.2d 284, 740 N.Y.S.2d 50 [1st Dept. 2002], lv denied 100 N.Y.2d 510, 766 N.Y.S.2d 164, 798 N.E.2d 348 [2003] ).” Hickey v Kaufman, 156 AD3d 436 [1st Dept 2017].

 

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Client stated valid cause of action

In action brought against an attorney who represented the plaintiff in a prior legal malpractice action, the Second Department held that the client stated a valid cause of action and the order granting the motion to dismiss the complaint was reversed.

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~ ~ ~

4777 Food Services Corp., Appellant,

v

Anthony P. Gallo, P.C., et al., Respondents.

Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, New York

2016-05087, 67736/14

May 24, 2017

In an action to recover damages for legal malpractice, the plaintiff appeals from an order of the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Asher, J.), dated March 23, 2016, which granted the defendants’ motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint.

Ordered that the order is reversed, on the law, with costs, and the defendant’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint is denied.

In this action to recover damages for legal malpractice, the complaint alleges that the defendants, Anthony P. Gallo, P.C., and Anthony P. Gallo (hereinafter together Gallo), who represented the plaintiff in a prior legal malpractice action against the plaintiff’s former attorneys, Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., and Joseph N. Rizzo, Jr. (hereinafter together Rizzo), negligently *1055 failed to respond to certain discovery demands by Rizzo, which resulted in the Supreme Court (Gazzillo, J.) precluding the introduction of evidence in the plaintiff’s legal malpractice action against Rizzo (4777 Food Servs. Corp. v Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., 2013 NY Slip Op 33007[U] [Sup Ct, Suffolk County 2013] [hereinafter the Rizzo order]). The complaint further alleges that, as a result of this evidence being precluded, the court which issued the Rizzo order found that the plaintiff had failed to meet its burden of proof as to the element of damages sustained as a result of Rizzo’s malpractice.

In this action, Gallo moved pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint, and relied in part on the Rizzo order. Gallo argued that the Rizzo order held that even if the subject evidence had not been precluded, the evidence would have been too speculative to support a damages award, and as a result, the complaint was subject to dismissal.

In the order appealed from, the Supreme Court (Asher, J.), relying on certain language in the Rizzo order, determined that Justice Gazzillo “expressly found” that the evidence, had it not been precluded, would have been too speculative to permit an award of damages, and granted Gallo’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss. The plaintiff appeals, and we reverse.

“On a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (7), the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true, the plaintiff is accorded the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and the court’s function is to determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory” (Biro v Roth, 121 AD3d 733, 735 [2014], citing Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 87-88 [1994]; Grant v LaTrace, 119 AD3d 646, 646-647 [2014]). “A cause of action to recover damages for legal **2 malpractice requires proof of three elements: (1) that the defendant failed to exercise that degree of care, skill, and diligence commonly possessed and exercised by an ordinary member of the legal community, (2) that such negligence was the proximate cause of the actual damages sustained by the plaintiff, and (3) that, but for the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff would have been successful in the underlying action” (Cummings v Donovan, 36 AD3d 648, 648 [2007], citing Simmons v Edelstein, 32 AD3d 464 [2006]). According the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, we conclude that the complaint states a cause of action.

A motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) on the ground that a defense is founded on documentary evidence “may be appropriately granted only where the documentary*1056 evidence utterly refutes [the] plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law” (Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 NY2d 314, 326 [2002]; see Rodolico v Rubin & Licatesi, P.C., 114 AD3d 923 [2014]; Endless Ocean, LLC v Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo, 113 AD3d 587 [2014]; Siracusa v Sager, 105 AD3d 937 [2013]).

Here, the Rizzo order does not utterly refute the allegations in the complaint, nor does it establish a defense as a matter of law. The order concludes, in part, that there was no proof of actual damages presented by the plaintiff, due to the plaintiff’s failure to respond to at least two of Rizzo’s discovery demands, which resulted in the preclusion of the damages evidence. The Rizzo order then states, referring to the precluded evidence, “[m]oreover, even if, arguendo the [c]ourt were to overlook that deficiency, its probative value is highly suspect” (4777 Food Servs. Corp. v Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., 2013 NY Slip Op 33007[U], *9 [2013]). Contrary to the Supreme Court’s conclusion, this alternate holding, which constitutes dicta, was not a finding on the merits and did not utterly refute the allegations in the complaint against Gallo (see O’Connor v G & R Packing Co., 53 NY2d 278 [1981]; Malloy v Trombley, 50 NY2d 46, 50 [1980]; Pollicino v Roemer & Featherstonhaugh, 277 AD2d 666, 667-668 [2000]). Accordingly, the Supreme Court should have denied Gallo’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint. Mastro, J.P., Sgroi, LaSalle and Connolly, JJ., concur.

 

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