3 Lessons to Learn From This Legal Malpractice Case

Milgram Thomajan & Lee, P.C. v Golden Gate Petroleum, P.C.    2014 NY Slip Op 24063   Decided on March 19, 2014   Appellate Term, First Department  teaches three lessons.  One is that a well written letter to the client during litigation warning of potential problems in choosing one course of conduct over another may sway the outcome.  The second is that strategic choices, supported by good reasons will often defeat legal malpractice claims and the third is that unpaid legal services, especially those that are recouped from a bankruptcy, can be very powerful.
 

"The action arises out of plaintiff's representation of the first-named defendant, a petroleum importer, in connection with an administrative protest of a customs duty assessment imposed on a shipment of gasoline and related chemicals. The jury's verdict, finding that plaintiff did not commit malpractice in its underlying representation of defendant, was not against the weight of the evidence. The trial evidence, fairly interpreted, supports the jury's evident rejection of defendant's contention that but for plaintiff's advice, defendant would have prevailed in the underlying customs protest, one which, the record shows, defendant elected to pursue in the face of plaintiff's frank admonition that it "may prove a tough fight, the outcome of which cannot be predicted with any certainty." The evidence, including the conflicting expert opinion testimony, permitted the jury to conclude that, in advising defendant, the lawyers of plaintiff law firm did not disregard settled law (see Darby & Darby v VSI Intl., 95 NY2d 308, 313 [2000]) and would have permitted a jury finding that the advice itself was not the proximate cause of defendant's losses (see Chadbourne & Parke, LLP v HGK Asset Mgt., Inc., 295 AD2d 208, 209 [2002]). And while defendant posits several alternative courses that plaintiff might have pursued in the underlying administrative protest, it failed to show that the tactical decisions made by the firm did not constitute "proper strategic legal decision-making" (Taylor v Paskoff & Tamber, LLP, 102 AD3d 446, 448 [2013]), or so the jury reasonably could find. Nor was the jury's consideration of the legal malpractice issue shown to have been compromised in any way [*2]by the form of the verdict sheet, particularly when that document is viewed in the context of the charge as a whole (see Plunkett v Emergency Med. Serv., 234 AD2d 162, 163 [1996]).

The record discloses no evidentiary error warranting reversal. The out-of-court statements made by defendant's (now) deceased chief financial officer were admissible under the "speaking agent" exception to the hearsay rule (see Loschiavo v Port. Auth. of New York & New Jersey, 58 NY2d 1040, 1041 [1983]). Further, in light of the voluminous evidence considered by the jury, including over 60 trial exhibits introduced by defendant, any error in the exclusion of the two documents now complained of by defendant would have been harmless (see Ramkison v New York City Hous. Auth., 209 AD2d 256, 256 [2000]).

We note finally that the court properly directed a verdict in favor of plaintiff on its main claim for unpaid legal services, a claim which, as one abandoned by plaintiff's trustee in bankruptcy, revested in plaintiff at the close of the bankruptcy proceeding (see Dynamics Corp. of Am. v Marine Midland Bank—New York, 69 NY2d 191, 195-196 [1987]; Culver v Parsons, 7 AD3d 931, 932 [2004]). "

 

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