Archives for May 2015

Legal Malpractice Claims: Elements and Damages: Illinois Case Snippets (2015)

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Two First District cases – one published, the other not – decided some eight days apart in April 2015, provide good capsule summaries of the pleading and proof elements of a legal malpractice claim in Illinois, the nature and reach of the attorney-client relationship (“A-C Relationship”) and the universe of possible damages that a plaintiff can recover in legal malpractice suits.

The plaintiff in Tuckaway Development, LLC v. Schain, Burney, Ross & Citron, Ltd., 2015 IL App (1st) 140621-U asked for over $1M but was awarded just over $1,000 in a case involving a late-recorded mortgage in connection with a related real estate deal.  Meriturn Partners, LLC v. Banner and Witcoff, Ltd.’s plaintiff (2015 IL App (1st) 131883) fared much better.  There, a jury awarded the private equity firm plaintiff a cool $6M in a case involving an intellectual property lawyer’s misguided advice concerning patents owned by a waste disposal company the plaintiff planned to invest in.

Here are some key legal malpractice points distilled from the two cases:

1/ To win a legal malpractice suit, a plaintiff must prove the existence of an A-C Relationship;

2/ An A-C Relationship requires both the attorney and client to consent to the relationship’s formation;

3/ That consent (to the formation of an A-C Relationship) can be express (by words) or implied (by conduct);

4/ A client can’t unilaterally create an A-C Relationship and his subjective belief that such a relationship exists isn’t enough to bind the attorney;

5/ Where an attorney knows a person is relying on his services or advice, an A-C Relationship exists;

6/ In some cases, third-party non-clients can establish that an attorney owes contractual duties to them (the third parties);

7/ An attorney’s obligations can extend to third-party non-clients where they are intended beneficiaries of the attorneys’ services;

8/ The measure of damages in an attorney malpractice suit are those damages that would put plaintiff in a position he would have been in had the attorney not been negligent;

9/ Legal malpractice damages present a question for a jury and that damage assessment is entitled to great deference;

10/ Absent evidence that the jury failed to follow the law, considered erroneous evidence or that the verdict was the result of passion or prejudice, an appeals court can’t negate the verdict.

Tuckaway, ¶¶ 28-30; Meriturn, ¶¶ 10, 18.

In Meriturn, the court ruled that the IP lawyer’s duties extended to third party investors even though he never signed a contract with them. The key evidence supporting the finding included testimony and e-mails that showed that the lawyer knew that outside investors were relying on his patent opinions and also illustrated some direct communications between the lawyer and the (non-client) third party investors.  

The lawyer’s failure to limit the scope of his representation to the plaintiff investment firm made it easy for the court to find the lawyer’s fiduciary duties extended beyond his immediate client, the plaintiff.  

The court also upheld the jury’s $6M damage verdict in Meriturn against the plaintiff’s claim that it was too low (the plaintiff sought over $23M,)  While the plaintiff sought lost profits (profits lost as a result of the investment going bad due to the bad patent advice), those damages were foreclosed by the “new business” rule.  

Since the plaintiff’s investment in the waste disposal company was a new venture for both the plaintiff and the company, any claimed lost profits were purely speculative and couldn’t be recovered.

Tuckaway’s paltry damages sum awarded to the plaintiff was also supported by the evidence.  There, the lawyer defendant offered uncontested expert testimony that the property that was subject of the late mortgage recording was worth next to nothing since it was already encumbered by a prior mortgage.  

As a result, the jury’s damage amount – some 800 times less than was claimed by the plaintiff – was supported by the evidence.

Take-aways:

1/ An attorney who doesn’t clearly define and limit the scope of his representation can find himself owing duties to third party “strangers” to his attorney-client agreement;

2/ A jury is given wide latitude in fashioning damage awards.  Unless there is obvious error or where it’s clear they considered improper evidence, their damage assessment will be sustained.

 

Law Firm Isn’t An Employment Agency – Can Recover In Quantum Meruit For Negotiating Personal Services Contract (IL Law)

 

Todd W. Musburger, Ltd. v. Meier, 394 Ill.App.3d 781 (1st 2009), while dated, is still post-worthy for its in-depth discussion of a lawyer’s quantum meruit recovery  from a client after the client fires the lawyer under a contingent fee contract.

The defendant radio personality had previously hired the plaintiff law firm under a multi-year written contract to serve as the defendant’s exclusive agent in negotiating defendant’s radio and television contracts.  That contingent fee contract called for the defendant to pay plaintiff 5% of the gross amount of any contract consummated by the plaintiff.

Plaintiff claimed that after the fee agreement was verbally renewed, the plaintiff spent about 200 hours over a one-year period negotiating the renewal of defendant’s radio contract with the WLS (AM 890) station and shopping defendant to competing stations.

Plaintiff alleged that its aggressive negotiation efforts culminated in a $12M/10-year contract offer from WLS; an offer rejected by defendant.  Plaintiff would have received $600,000 under the parties’ contingency contract if the defendant accepted the station’s offer re-upped there.

After it was fired by the defendant, the firm sued to recover for the value of its pre-termination work on the defendant’s behalf.

At trial, a jury awarded damages to the plaintiff of about $70K and the defendant appealed.

Held: Affirmed:

Q: Why?

A:  The court stated the operative rules governing attorney-client relationships and an attorney’s entitlement to recover fees:

a client may discharge her attorney at any time, with or without cause;

–  when a client fires an attorney who was representing the client on contingency, the contingent-fee contract ceases to exist and is no longer operative;

– a discharged attorney may be compensated for the services rendered before the termination of the contingent fee contract on a quantum meruit basis;

– Quantum meruit is based on the implied promise of a recipient of services to pay for valuable services because otherwise the recipient would be unjustly enriched.”

– in quantum meruit recovery, the former client is liable for the reasonable value of the services received during the attorney’s employment.

–  an attorney’s quantum meruit recovery can be barred if an attorney has engaged in illegal conduct;

– just because a client doesn’t receive tangible benefits from a lawyer’s services, it doesn’t mean that a lawyer still can recover under a quantum meruit theory.

The court affirmed the jury verdict and rejected all of defendant’s arguments on appeal.

The court first rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff was prevented from recovering since it wasn’t licensed as a private employment agency under the Illinois Private Employment Agency Act 225 ILCS 515/11

The court found that plaintiff – a law firm – didn’t meet the statutory definition of “employment agency” since the plaintiff was hired to draft and negotiate on-air talent contracts.  It wasn’t a recruiter or job placement firm.

Next, the court affirmed the trial court’s barring defendant’s retained expert, a lawyer, from testifying that plaintiff shouldn’t have been allowed quantum meruit recovery and that plaintiff breached its fiduciary duties to the defendant.

In Illinois, the decision to admit or bar expert testimony is within the sound discretion of the trial court and the trial court’s ruling will not be reversed absent an abuse of that discretion.

Expert testimony is admissible if the proffered expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, and the testimony will assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence.  But – “expert testimony as to legal conclusions that will determine the outcome of the case is inadmissible.”

Here, the trial court properly barred the defendant’s expert’s quantum meruit opinions since they invaded the province of the trial court.  It’s an axiom that the trial court decides legal issues while the jury decides factual ones.  The defendant’s excluded testimony that plaintiff wasn’t entitled to quantum meruit recovery was a blatant legal conclusion that attempted to interpret the parties’ oral agreement.

The court upheld the jury’s quantum meruit damages award.  The court cited the voluminous trial testimony (over 100 pages in the record), offered in chronological detail, where plaintiff discussed the nature and difficulty of the contract negotiations carried out on defendant’s behalf, the money and degree of responsibility involved, and the time and labor required  Plaintiff’s testimony was supported by a radio station executive who had first-hand knowledge of the negotiations.

Afterwords:

  • This case provides a useful summary of quantum meruit in the fairly convoluted and interesting fact pattern involving high-level personal services contracts;
  • A law firm isn’t a job placement agency under the Illinois Private Employment Agency Act and so doesn’t have to be licensed to recover for employment contract negotiations;
  • A lawyer can recover for pre-termination services where he can support and quantify the services either through documentary or testimonial evidence.

 

 

Commercial Frustration and Prior Material Breach – Mizzou Appeals Court Weighs In

Clean the Uniform Co. St. Louis v. Magic Touch Cleaning, Inc., 300 S.W.3d 602 (Mo. 2009), a case from a jurisdiction I don’t practice in and that involves an unsexy fact pattern and monetary amount (less than $20K), still has some across-the-board relevance for its examination of liquidated damages clauses and the commercial frustration contract defense – two staples of commercial disputes.

The plaintiff and defendant entered into a three-year contract (the “Services Contract”) for plaintiff to rent cleaning uniforms and supplies to the defendant.  The contract called for the defendant to make at least partial payments on a weekly basis.  The contract contained a liquidated damages provision that said if the defendant prematurely terminated the Services Contract, the plaintiff could recover 50% of the average weekly rental charges for the six month period preceding the breach times the number of weeks remaining in the contract term.

The Services Contract also provided that it would be suspended for events that occurred beyond the parties’ control (a “force majeure” clause).

Defendant defaulted when its own one-year contract (the “Hospital Contract”) with a large VA hospital expired and wasn’t renewed.  Without the large VA hospital account, defendant couldn’t pay under the Services Contract.

Plaintiff sued to recover past-due amounts and liquidated damages under the Service Contract’s early termination provision.  The defendant argued that the VA hospital’s refusal to renew the Hospital Contract was an event beyond defendant’s control and excused its contract obligations to the plaintiff.

The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff and the defendant appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Q: Why?

The court found that the Hospital Contract’s termination was an event beyond defendant’s control.  The law is that if a party to a contract wants its performance to be excused if a certain event happens, and that event is reasonably foreseeable to happen after a contract is signed, the party should expressly provide for that contingency in the contract.

The commercial frustration doctrine posits that “if the happening of an event not foreseen by the parties and not caused by or under the control of either party has destroyed or nearly destroyed either the value of the performance or the object or purpose of the contract, then the parties are excused from further performance.”

While performance is technically still possible in a commercial frustration case, the defense will apply if the expected value of performance by a party has been destroyed by an intervening and unexpected event.

The court held that the defendants should have appreciated that the Hospital Contract could expire during the term of the Services Contract and not be renewed.  The defendant could have negotiated to make the Services Contract dependent on the continuing viability of the Hospital Contract but didn’t do so.  It wrote: “non-renewal of the [Hospital Contract] was a reasonably foreseeable risk at the time of contracting that did not excuse Customer’s performance under the [Services Contract].”

For the same reason, the defendant’s argument that it’s default was caused by an event beyond its control failed.  The Service Contract’s force majeure provision listed “strikes” and “lockouts” as specific events beyond the parties’ control.  But a third party’s refusal to renew an ancillary agreement (here, the Hospital Contract) wasn’t similar enough to a strike or lockout to absolve defendant’s payment obligations under the Service Contract.

Afterwords: To prevail on a commercial frustration argument, a defendant has a heavy burden.  Parties should take pains to spell out events that could happen during the term of a contract that makes it impossible for one party to perform its obligations.  A failure to clearly account for contingencies can result in a court finding that you assumed the risk of an intervening event making contractual performance impossible