Clients often ask whether it matters that their legal malpractice case comes as a defense to an attorney fee case.  It should not, but judges are swayed by the procedural setting of cases before them.  Does it make a difference whether the legal malpractice case is a main action or a counterclaim?  Taking a look at this case gives possible insight.

Kluczka v Lecci  2009 NY Slip Op 04867  Decided on June 9, 2009  Appellate Division, Second Department  holds that:

"The plaintiff retained the defendant attorney to represent him in a divorce action commenced by his former wife. The divorce action was settled by a stipulation pursuant to which the plaintiff agreed, inter alia, to waive his interest in the marital residence and give his former wife a share of his pension benefits, while she agreed to waive her interest in another property, and forgive certain child support arrears. The plaintiff thereafter commenced this action, contending that the defendant had committed legal malpractice by recommending that the plaintiff enter into the stipulation without obtaining appraisals of the subject real property or his pension.

Here, the defendant made a prima facie showing that he was entitled to summary judgment by demonstrating that the stipulation in the underlying divorce action was a provident agreement which provided both parties with benefits, and that his allegedly negligent failure to obtain appraisals did not cause the plaintiff to incur any damages. In opposition, the plaintiff failed to raise an issue of fact as to whether he incurred damages by submitting evidentiary proof that, but for the defendant’s alleged negligence, he would have been able to negotiate a more favorable settlement (see Rapp v Lauer, 229 AD2d 383, 384; Rogers v Ettinger, 163 AD2d 257, 258). Accordingly, the Supreme Court should have granted that branch of the defendant’s motion which was for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

However, the court properly denied that branch of the plaintiff’s cross motion which was for summary judgment dismissing the defendant’s counterclaim to recover unpaid legal fees. An attorney may not recover fees for legal services performed in a negligent manner even where that negligence is not a proximate cause of the client’s injury (see Martin, Van de Walle, Guarino & Donohue v Yohay, 149 AD2d 477, 480; Campagnola v Mulholland, Minion & Roe, 148 AD2d 155, 158, affd 76 NY2d 38). Here, the submissions of both parties demonstrate that there is a sharply disputed issue of fact as to whether the defendant’s performance of legal services, as measured against that of an attorney of reasonable skill and knowledge, was negligent (see Kutner v Catterson, 56 AD3d 437). Thus, the issue of whether the defendant is entitled to recover legal fees on his counterclaim must await resolution at trial. "