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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If there has been a demonstration that the attorney-client relationship in a matter ceased…

While the continuous representation doctrine can toll a time-barred cause of action for legal malpractice, if there has been a demonstration that the attorney-client relationship in a matter ceased, the time within which to bring such action will accrue then, as held in Sclafani v Kahn, 169 AD3d 846 [2d Dept 2019]:

An action to recover damages for legal malpractice must be commenced within three years of accrual, “ regardless of whether the underlying theory is based in contract or tort ” (CPLR 214[6]; see McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; Chase Scientific Research v. NIA Group, 96 N.Y.2d 20, 725 N.Y.S.2d 592, 749 N.E.2d 161; Quinn v. McCabe, Collins, McGeough & Fowler, LLP, 138 A.D.3d at 1086, 30 N.Y.S.3d 288; Alizio v. Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 126 A.D.3d at 735, 5 N.Y.S.3d 252; Farage v. Ehrenberg, 124 A.D.3d 159, 163, 996 N.Y.S.2d 646; Landow v. Snow Becker Krauss, P.C., 111 A.D.3d at 796, 975 N.Y.S.2d 119). “ A cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice accrues when the malpractice is committed, not when it is discovered ” (Alizio v. Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 126 A.D.3d at 735, 5 N.Y.S.3d 252; see McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d at 301, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; Quinn v. McCabe, Collins, McGeough & Fowler, LLP, 138 A.D.3d at 1086, 30 N.Y.S.3d 288; Farage v. Ehrenberg, 124 A.D.3d at 164, 996 N.Y.S.2d 646; Landow v. Snow Becker Krauss, P.C., 111 A.D.3d at 796, 975 N.Y.S.2d 119).

However, “ [t]he continuous representation doctrine serves to toll the statute of limitations and render timely an otherwise time-barred cause of action for legal malpractice, but ‘ only where there is a mutual understanding of the need for further representation on the specific subject *121 matter underlying the malpractice claim ’ ” (King Tower Realty Corp. v. G & G Funding Corp., 163 A.D.3d 541, 543, 79 N.Y.S.3d 289, quoting McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d at 306, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; see Alizio v. Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 126 A.D.3d at 735, 5 N.Y.S.3d 252). For the doctrine to apply, “ there must be clear indicia of ‘ an ongoing, continuous, developing, and dependent relationship between the client and the attorney ’ ” (Farage v. Ehrenberg, 124 A.D.3d at 164, 996 N.Y.S.2d 646, quoting Aseel v. Jonathan E. Kroll & Assoc., PLLC, 106 A.D.3d 1037, 1038, 966 N.Y.S.2d 202; see Quinn v. McCabe, Collins, McGeough & Fowler, LLP, 138 A.D.3d at 1086, 30 N.Y.S.3d 288).

Here, the defendants established that the plaintiffs’ legal malpractice cause of action was time-barred, as it accrued on June 24, 2009, at the conclusion of the closing (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). In opposition to the defendants’ respective motions, the plaintiffs failed to raise a question of fact as to whether the continuous representation doctrine tolled the applicable statute of limitations. Indeed, the communications between the parties upon which the plaintiffs rely, which occurred after the statute of limitations had run, demonstrated that the attorney-client relationship in this matter had ceased at the conclusion of the closing, and was not continued.

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Client cannot prove damages occurred due to attorney’s malpractice

A legal malpractice action can be dismissed where the client cannot prove that damages occurred due to the attorney’s malpractice (what is commonly referred to as “but-for”). In Lisi v Lowenstein Sandler LLP, 2019 NY Slip Op 01665 [1st Dept Mar. 7, 2019], the court held:

In this legal malpractice action, plaintiff alleges that defendants were negligent in failing to advise him that the income realized from the exercise of his stock options would be taxed as ordinary income and that, had they so advised him, he would have sold his shares earlier or eliminated any market risk by shorting the shares in full or otherwise taking measures to eliminate risk. However, this theory of proximate cause is belied by the record and relies on gross speculation (see Gallet, Dreyer & Berkey, LLP v. Basile, 141 A.D.3d 405, 35 N.Y.S.3d 56 [1st Dept. 2016]; Sherwood Group v. Dornbush, Mensch, Mandelstam & Silverman, 191 A.D.2d 292, 294, 594 N.Y.S.2d 766 [1st Dept. 1993] ).

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Be mindful of New York’s statute of limitations pertaining to legal malpractice actions

Soloway v Kane Kessler, PC, 168 AD3d 407 [1st Dept 2019] serves as a good reminder to be mindful of New York’s statute of limitations pertaining to legal malpractice actions.

“ The court correctly found the complaint time-barred under CPLR 202, New York’s “ borrowing statute, ” which requires a claim to be timely under both the New York limitations period and that of the jurisdiction where the claim is alleged to have arisen (Kat House Prods., LLC v Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, LLP, 71 AD3d 580 [1st Dept 2010]).

Plaintiff, a New Jersey resident, alleged legal malpractice in connection with defendants’ representation of him for numerous real estate transactions, a cause of action which has a three year statute of limitations in New York (CPLR 214 [6]), and a six year limitations period in New Jersey (NJ Stat Ann § 2A:14-1). The latest that the alleged malpractice could have occurred was February 7, 2013, the date set for closing on the last of the real estate matters. Because plaintiff commenced the action on October 28, 2016, more than three years later, it was correctly dismissed as untimely. “

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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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Outlining the scope of an attorney’s retainer agreement is important.

Outlining the scope of an attorney’s retainer agreement is important. This sets forth the nature of the work to be rendered by an attorney on behalf of his client. In Attallah v Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, LLP, 2019 NY Slip Op 00583 [2d Dept Jan. 30, 2019], the court held:

An attorney may not be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer (see AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d 1033). Therefore, since the defendant’s alleged failure to negotiate with the school, its alleged failure to commence litigation against the school, and its alleged failure to properly advise the plaintiff on the efficacy of a defamation action against nonschool parties fell outside the scope of the parties’ letter of engagement, dismissal of the cause of action alleging legal malpractice was warranted, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), on documentary evidence grounds.

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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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Intent to deceive and Judiciary Law Section 487

The court dismissed the claims against the attorney relating to intent to deceive, holding:

Under Judiciary Law Section 487, an attorney who “[i]s guilty of any deceit or collusion, or consents to any deceit or collusion, with intent to deceive the court or any party” is liable to the injured party for treble damages. “ [V]iolation 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 A.D.3d 1106, 1108, 886 N.Y.S.2d 49 [citation omitted]; see Gorbatov v. Tsirelman, 155 A.D.3d 836, 838, 65 N.Y.S.3d 71).

Aristakesian v Ballon Stoll Bader & Nadler, P.C., 165 AD3d 1023, 1025 [2d Dept 2018].

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