Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.