A Legal Malpractice Case and Its Dismissal

Reading this case produces an image of a train rolling through the countryside, without anyone at the controls.  It is the story of a car accident, an unjoined party, and mistake after mistake.  In the end plaintiffs are non-suited and all the efforts are for naught.

Di Giacomo v Michael S. Langella, P.C.  2012 NY Slip Op 32658(U)  October 11, 2012
Supreme Court, Suffolk County  Docket Number: 08-7307  Judge: John J.J. Jones J

This action for legal malpractice was commenced to recover damages allegedly sustained by the
plaintiffs as the result of the failure of the defendants to properly present a motion to vacate the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ underlying action for personal injuries. On May 23, 2000, the plaintiff Lisa Di Giacomo Frangione (Di Giacomo) was involved in a motor vehicle accident. In May 2000, the plaintiffs retained Ira Levine, Esq. (Levine), to commence an action against Barbara Daniels (Daniels), the owner and operator of the other vehicle involved in the underlying accident. On September 18, 2003, the plaintiff executed a Consent to Change Attorney substituting Hankin, Handwerker & Mazel, PLLC (HHM) as her attorneys in place of Levine. Depositions in the personal injury action were conducted on or about April 2,2004, and Daniels testified that at the time of the accident she had been operating her vehicle in the course of her employment with Weight Watchers. After the underlying action (or Daniels action) had been placed on the trial calendar, HHM moved for leave to withdraw as counsel for the plaintiffs. By order of the Court dated May 15, 2006 (Molia, J.), the motion was granted, counsel was directed to serve a copy of the order on the plaintiffs on or before May 19, 2006, and the discharge was to be effective ten days after filing proof of service. In addition, the order set down July 12,2006 as the date for jury selection. When the plaintiffs failed to appear for jury selection on July 12,2006, the matter was adjourned until July 19, 2006. The record before this Court reveals that the plaintiffs again failed to appear on July 19,2006, and upon oral application made on the record by defense counsel in the underlying action, the action was dismissed with prejudice by the Honorable Denise F. Molia. On or about August 9,2006, the plaintiff retained the defendants to represent them in the underlying action. The defendants prepared and submitted an order to show cause dated August 10, 2006, seeking to vacate the plaintiffs default and to restore the case to the trial calendar. By order dated November 16, 2006, the Court (Molia, J.) denied the plaintiffs’ motion to vacate their default ."

"On February 20, 2008, the plaintiffs commenced this action for legal malpractice against Levine,
HHM, Stacy Rinaldi Guzman, Esq. (Guzman), and the defendants. Among the allegations set forth in the complaint is a claim that the failure to timely join Weight Watchers ( Daniel’s employer) as a party in the underlying action constituted malpractice. In addition, it is asserted that after HHM was relieved as plaintiffs’ counsel, the plaintiffs were represented by Guzman, who had agreed to appear on the plaintiffs’ behalf to obtain an adjournment of the July 12,2006 court date, but failed to do so. It is further alleged that the defendants failed to include an affidavit of merits with the motion to vacate the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ underlying action resulting in its denial, and the loss of the plaintiffs’ ability to recover damages for their injuries.In early 2008, Levine, HHM, Guzman and the defendants separately moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint on the grounds, among other things, that it failed to state a cause of action. By order dated October 30,2008, the undersigned granted the motions of Levine, HHM and the defendants, dismissing the complaint against them. By order entered on January 12, 2009, the undersigned granted Guzman’s motion, dismissing the complaint against her. After the plaintiffs’ appealed from the judgments entered pursuant to those orders, the Decision and Order of the Appellate Division, Second Department, dated September 14, 20 10, affirmed the dismissal of the complaints against Levine, HHM and Guzman, and reversed that branch of the order dismissing the complaint against the defendants. In a stipulation dated June 15, 20 1 1, the parties agreed to amend the caption to reflect the dismissals in favor of Levine, HHM and Guzman. Said stipulation was so ordered on July 13, 201 1, and filed with the Clerk of the Supreme Court on July 18,2011. Thereafter, the action proceeded against the  defendants and, after all discovery was completed, a compliance order dated September 7,201 1, directed the plaintiffs to file a note of issue on or before October 7, 201 1. The computerized  records maintained by the Court reflect that the plaintiffs filed a note of issue on October 28, 201 1, resulting in the caption set forth above.’

"At his deposition, the defendant Michael S. Langella (Langella) testified that he was retained by
the plaintiffs on or about August 9,2006, to attempt to vacate the dismissal of the underlying action, to restore the action to the trial calendar, and to litigate that action. He decided to move by order to show cause as quickly as possible to avoid a claim by Daniels that she was prejudiced in the interim. Langella indicated that he was aware of the legal standard required to vacate a default,  and that his affirmation and the affidavit of Di Giacomo, submitted in support of the order to show cause, established that the plaintiffs had meritorious causes of action against Daniels. He acknowledged that the order to show cause did not state how the accident happened, and that the court order denying the motion stated that it was denied because it did not contain any proof regarding the merits of the plaintiffs’ action against Daniels. Langella further testified that he was aware of the facts surrounding the dismissal of the Daniels action, and that the case had been on the trial calendar and adjourned a number of times. He indicated that he spoke with Levine by telephone to corroborate the plaintiffs’ claim that Di Giacomo had spoken with Guzman to obtain an adjournment of the July 12, 2006 court date, that he did not advise the plaintiffs that they had a legal malpractice claim against Levine, and that he did not receive the plaintiffs’ file from HHM until October 10, 2006. He stated that he handled a subsequent motion to reargue the denial of the order to show cause differently, attaching a doctor’s affirmation and Levine’s affirmation. Langella testified that the written retainer signed by the plaintiffs provides that he and his firm were going to represent them to collect compensation for their injuries in the car accident, and to sue any persons or entities that may be liable to them for damages under the law. He indicated that the  retainer stated that the plaintiffs would be responsible for the costs of any appeals, but that he did not charge them for the costs of the two appeals that he prosecuted on their behalf in the Daniels action. He stated that “based on the circumstances here, I believed that it was my obligation to undertake those costs and responsibilities.” He believed that Di Giacomo should have been compensated for the injuries that she suffered in the car accident. Langella further testified that the plaintiffs’ actions did not contribute lo the denial of the motion to vacate their default, that he was not aware of any third party that would be responsible for the plaintiffs’ damages during his representation of them, that he was not aware of any issues regarding privity of contract regarding the subject retainer, and that he is not claiming that he made any errors in judgment in representing the plaintiffs. He further stated that he had no knowledge that would indicate that the plaintiffs are not the real parties in interest in this action, and that he did not have any facts that would support a claim that this action is barred by the statute of limitations, or that the plaintiffs lack standing to bring this action."