IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in his individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley) after the LLC’s majority shareholders allegedly looted the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing. minority shareholder plaintiffs lacked standing to individually sue Sidley since Sidley’s obligations ran squarely

The trial court in the legal malpractice suit granted summary judgment for MW due to plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The court held that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the claim still would have failed because they could not bring claims in their individual capacity when those claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Result: Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert individual claims against Sidley.  Judgment for MW.

Rules/Reasons:

Some cases describe the legal malpractice suit as a “case-within-a-case.”  This is because the thrust of a legal malpractice claim is that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and awarded damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant’s breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer defendant’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit can’t succeed.

The plaintiff must establish that he would have prevailed in the underlying lawsuit had it not been for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages plaintiff would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued Sidley in their individual capacities.  Since Sidley’s obligations flowed strictly to the LLC, the plaintiff’s lacked standing to sue Sidley in their individual capacity.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this common law derivative suit recovery rule by making clear that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC.  By contrast, the nominal plaintiff can only recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

A nominal plaintiff in a derivative suit only benefits indirectly from a successful suit through an increase in share value. The Court held that the plaintiffs’ missing out on increased share value was not something they could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.  Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs – even though they were the named plaintiffs.  Since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they cannot now recover those same damages under the guise of a legal malpractice action.

An added basis for the Court’s decision was that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue by divesting themselves of their LLC interests.  Standing means one has a real interest in the outcome of a controversy and may suffer injury to a legally recognized interest.

Since plaintiffs relinquished their LLC membership interests before suing MW, they lacked standing to pursue derivative claims for the LLC.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in vivid relief the harsh results flowing from statute of limitations and the standing doctrine as it applies to aggrieved shareholder suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.

 

Contractor’s Legal Malpractice Suit Can Go Forward In Case of (Alleged) Misfiled Mechanics’ Lien: IL 1st Dist.

Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 141700, dramatically illustrates the perilous consequences that can flow from a construction contract’s failure to identify the contracting parties and shows the importance of clarity when drafting releases intended to protect parties from future liability.

The plaintiff contractor sued its former law firm (the Firm) for failing to properly perfect a mechanics lien against a mortgage lender on commercial property.  The plaintiff alleged that because of the Firm’s lien perfection failure, the plaintiff was forced to settled its claim for about $1.3M less than the lien’s worth (about $3M). 

In the underlying lien case, the plaintiff and defendant Firm got into a fee dispute and the Firm withdrew.  The Firm turned over its file to the plaintiff after the plaintiff made a partial payment of the outstanding fees (owed to defendant Firm) and signed a release (the “Release”). The Release, which referenced “known and unknown” claims and contained “without limitation” verbiage, was signed by the plaintiff in 2004.  Plaintiff filed the current malpractice suit in 2009.

The trial court entered summary judgment for the Firm on the basis that the Release immunized the Firm from future claims.  Plaintiff appealed.

Held: Reversed

Rules/Reasons:

Reversing summary judgment for the Firm, the First District first applied the relevant rules governing written releases in Illinois.

a release is a contract and is governed by contract law;

– a release will be enforced as written where it’s clearly worded

– the scope and effect of a release is controlled by the intention of the parties;

– the intention of the parties is divined by reference to the words of the release and a release won’t be construed to defeat a claim that was not contemplated by the parties when they signed it;

– A “general” release will not apply to specific claims where a party is unaware of other (specific) claims;

– Where one party to a release owes the other a fiduciary duty (e.g. lawyer-client), the party owing the fiduciary duty has the burden of showing that it disclosed all relevant information to the other party.

(¶¶ 25-28).

Here, the court gave the Release a cramped construction.  It held that it didn’t apply to the malpractice suit since that case wasn’t filed until 5 years after the Release was signed and there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew that the Firm possibly flubbed the lien filing when it (the plaintiff) signed the Release.  This lack of evidence on the parties’ intent raised a disputed fact question that required denial of summary judgment.

Next, the court turned to the Firm’s judicial estoppel argument – that the plaintiff couldn’t sue for malpractice since it obtained a benefit in the underlying lawsuit (a settlement payment of $1.8M from the competing lender) by claiming it was an original contractor and not a subcontractor.  Judicial estoppel applies where (1) a party takes two positions under oath, (2) in separate legal proceedings, (3) the party successfully maintained the first position and obtained a benefit from it; and (4) the two positions are inconsistent.  (¶ 37).

The issue was paramount to the underlying lien case because if the plaintiff was a subcontractor, it had to comply with the 90-day notice requirement of Section 24 of the Lien Act.  But if it was a general or original contractor, plaintiff was excused from the 90-day notice requirement.  Based on this factual uncertainty, the court found the plaintiff had a right to pursue alternative arguments to salvage something of its approximately $3M lien claim.

The court also agreed with the plaintiff that it could recover prejudgment interest on the legal malpractice claim.  Since that claim flowed from the underlying allegation that the Firm failed to perfect plaintiff’s lien, and since Section 21 of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act allows for prejudgment interest (770 ILCS 60/21), the plaintiff could add the interest it would have recovered to the damage claim versus the Firm. (¶ 48).

Afterwords:

1/ A broad release can still be narrowly interpreted to encompass only those claims that were likely in the release parties’ contemplation.  If a claim hadn’t come to fruition at the time a release is signed, the releasing party can argue that an expansive release doesn’t cover that inchoate claim;

2/ Judicial estoppel requires more than alternative pleadings or arguments.  Instead, the litigant must take two wholly contradictory statements and obtain a benefit from doing so.  What’s a “benefit” is open to interpretation.  Here, the plaintiff received $1.8M on its lien claim in the earlier litigation.  Still, this wasn’t a benefit in relation to the value of its lien – which exceeded $3M;

3/ If the underlying claim – be it common law or statutory – provides for pre-judgment interest, then the later malpractice suit stemming from that underlying claim can include pre-judgment interest in the damages calculation.

 

 

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

image

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.