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.

 

Brannen v. Siefert: A (Legal Malpractice) Case Study (Ill. First Dist.)

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The Featured Case: Brannen v. Siefert, 2013 IL App (1st) 122067, ¶ 52 (11.19.13)

 

The Facts: Plaintiffs – a land trustee and trust beneficiary – sued the Underlying Defendants, an attorney and his wife, for breach of a written real estate contract for the purchase of a home owned by the plaintiffs.  The strangely worded contract, drafted by Underlying Defendants, called for staggered payments of interest and principle over a several-year period to be credited towards the home’s purchase price.

The Underlying Defendants quickly breached and plaintiffs hired an attorney (the Former Attorneys) to collect the amounts owed under the contract.

The Former Attorneys (a solo practitioner and his professional corporation), unbeknownst to plaintiffs, declared a forfeiture of the contract by written notice to Underlying Defendants.  Several months later, the Underlying Defendants moved out.  At the time they vacated the property, the Underlying Defendants owed plaintiff about $150,000 and hadn’t made any payments for over two years.

The Underlying Case

Displeased with Former Attorneys’ performance, plaintiffs hired substitute counsel who filed a breach of contract suit against Underlying Defendants to recover past and future payments owed under the real estate contract.  The Underlying Defendants successfully moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on the Former Attorneys prior forfeiture notice.  The court found that the Underlying Defendants’ forfeiture remedy foreclosed a damages action by the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs then sued the Former Attorneys for legal malpractice.

The Malpractice Suit

The thrust of plaintiff’s malpractice suit was that the Former Attorneys committed professional negligence by giving up plaintiffs’ contract rights without first consulting them and by failing to explain the legal effect of that remedial choice.  The Former Attorneys argued they did explain how a forfeiture would impact plaintiffs’ rights and that cancelling the contract was the proper remedy since plaintiffs’ primary goal was to retake the property; not recover damages.

After a trial, a jury entered judgment against the Former Attorneys for $199,500 and they appealed.

Held: Affirmed.  

Rules/Reasoning:

In Illinois, a legal malpractice plaintiff must establish: (1) an attorney owed the plaintiff’s a duty arising from the attorney-client relationship; (2) the attorney breached that duty; (3) the attorney’s breach of duty proximately caused actual damages to the plaintiff.  Expert testimony is usually required to prove that an attorney breached his professional duties to his client.  ¶ 45, 61. 

A legal malpractice plaintiff must prove not only that he would have won the underlying case but that the underlying defendant was solvent enough to pay a judgment.  But the required solvency showing isn’t stringent: the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove a  defendant’s net worth but only needs to show the defendant’s ability to at least partially pay a judgment. ¶ 63.

The jury found the plaintiffs’ expert more believable than the Former Attorneys’.  Plaintiffs’ expert testified that contractual forfeiture was the wrong remedy since under the Illinois Forcible Entry and Detainer Act (the “Forcible Act”) a contract seller like plaintiffs can sue for both possession and money damages.  735 ILCS 5/9-102(a)(5), 9-209 (plaintiff can sue for possession and damages).  The plaintiffs’ expert also testified that by declaring a forfeiture – when both Illinois law and the subject real estate contract allowed multiple remedies – the Former Attorneys prevented the plaintiffs from recovering nearly $150,000 in money damages.  ¶¶ 46-49.

The Court also found that plaintiffs established the Underlying Defendants’ solvency.  The trial evidence demonstrated that the Underlying Defendants could at least partially pay a judgment based on their income and other assets.  ¶ 65.  Because the plaintiffs proved each element of their legal malpractice case, the First District affirmed the jury verdict for the plaintiffs.

Take-aways: (1) To win the legal malpractice ‘case within the case’, a malpractice plaintiff must prove he would have won the underlying case but doesn’t have to precisely prove the malpractice defendant’s net worth. It is enough to show that the defendant has a source of income and is able of paying all or part of a judgment; (2) The Forcible Act provides for possession and money damages to a contract home seller where a buyer breaches an installment sales contract; and (3) the forfeiture remedy should be exercised with extreme caution.  That’s because if you nullify a contract, it can bar a later action to recover money damages for breach of contract.

 

NM Supreme Court Reinstates Legal Malpractice Claim After Firm Blows Statute

walterwhiteAfter another weekend of binge-watching Walter, Hank, Skyler and crew, I definitely have the Land of Enchantment on the brain.  How could I not after watching – no, strike that, after Devouring.  Like a Rabid, Foaming-At-The-Mouth Animal! Seasons 4-5 of ABQ-based Breaking Bad over an eye-searing three-day period (with little more than a sporadic water break).  An aside: do friends and family have interventions for Netflix addiction?  Just curious.  My friend wants to know (cough).   I also concede that I’m way way late to the party on this, but the stories are true: Br/Ba is an absolute TV masterpiece.  That’s why today’s featured case is geographically appealing to me.  Not only that, but its subject matter is interesting and its lessons, both cautionary and profound.

The Case and Facts:  Encinias v. Whitener Law Firm (Sept. 12, 2013)

http://www.nmcompcomm.us/nmcases/nmsc/slips/SC33,874.pdf

Plaintiff high school student was injured in 2004 when he was badly beaten by a group of students on property adjacent to the school.  Plaintiff hired defendant law firm (Firm) in 2006 to file a personal injury suit against the defendant school district for failure to protect plaintiff and to properly respond to the attack.  The Firm failed to file suit before the two-year statute of limitations ran in October 2006.  Sometime in 2008, after plaintiff made several queries concerning the case’s status, the Firm informed plaintiff that it missed the filing deadline.  Plaintiff then sued for legal malpractice.

Disposition: The Supreme Court reversed lower court rulings for the Firm and reinstated the plaintiff’s claim.

Reasoning:

Legal Malpractice Claim

Plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim asserted that because of the Firm’s failure to timely file suit, plaintiff’s claims against the school district are forever lost.  To plead legal malpractice in New Mexico, the plaintiff must show: (1) the employment of the defendant attorney; (2) the defendant attorney’s neglect of a reasonable duty; and (3) the negligence resulted in and was the proximate cause of loss to the client.  The NM Supreme Court focused on element three: loss to the plaintiff/client.

A NM legal malpractice plaintiff must prove loss by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she would have won the underlying claim but for the attorney’s negligence. Richardson v. Glass, 1992-NMSC-046, ¶ 10.  The Firm argued that since the plaintiff’s suit would be defeated by sovereign immunity doctrine, plaintiff would have lost even if his complaint was timely filed.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument and found a triable fact question as to whether the school district waived sovereign immunity under New Mexico’s premises liability principles reflected in its tort claims statute.  Section 41-4-6(A);  ¶¶ 8-9.  The Court focused on an assistant principal’s affidavit testimony that the location of the fight was a known “hot zone” for fighting students.  This genuine issue of fact regarding the school’s knowledge of a dangerous condition on or near the school, meant that plaintiff could prevail in the underlying case and defeated summary judgment.  ¶ 13.

The Misrepresentation claim

Plaintiff alleged the Firm misrepresented that (a) no work had been done on the case and (b) the limitations period expired.  The Firm didn’t tell plaintiff until Spring 2008 that the statute ran, when there was evidence the Firm knew this in July 2007.  ¶ 21.  The Court rejected the lower courts finding that despite the Firm’s withholding information, plaintiff still didn’t sustain actual damages.

NM law permits intentional tort plaintiffs to recover nominal and punitive damages and plaintiff pled punitive damages against the Firm in his misrepresentation count.  Pointing out that the Firm specifically (and erroneously) assured the Plaintiff in October 2006 that the statute of limitations had not run and that the Firm was actively working the case, it was reasonable for plaintiff to rely on the Firm’s representations.

The Court held that the Firm’s failure to disclose that no work had been done damaged plaintiff’s ability to pursue his case against the school district.  Id., ¶¶22-23.  The Court noted record evidence that the Firm’s withholding case information (that it wasn’t working on the case and later, that the statute expired) from plaintiff made it difficult for plaintiff to collect supporting evidence in the underlying case.  Id.  And since a NM intentional tort claim doesn’t require actual damages, plaintiff established a material question of fact on his misrepresentation claim against the Firm.

Lessons: Practitioners should be cognizant and hyper-vigilant as to filing deadlines.  An undercurrent of the Court’s ruling is that the Firm not only failed to timely file, they repeatedly failed to keep the plaintiff informed of the case status.

The case also shows that actual damages aren’t required in New Mexico to state a colorable misrepresentation claim and that if a plaintiff pleads nominal or punitive damages, his claim can survive summary judgment.