A Hodgepodge of Legal Malpractice and Conflicts Issues
W.S. Corp. v Cullen and Dykman LLP 2014 NY Slip Op 30353(U) February 5, 2014 Sup Ct, New York County Docket Number: 654176/12 Judge: Marcy S. Friedman is a CPLR 3211 decision based upon a large number of claims. Basically, its sibling v. sibling, each of which have enjoyed the benefits of a trust and income from a company. Now they are at odds. One law firm has helped for years and sided with the more alpha of the siblings. Now, there is litigation.
"The action arises out of a dispute between siblings. The Baugher plaintiffs and their brothers, Jeffrey and Kirk Baugher, were all presumptive remainder beneficiaries of a trust. (Complaint 23.) Their mother, Phebe Baugher, was lifetime income beneficiary of the trust and a de facto trustee until her death on November 4, 2008. (Id., 22, 27.) Jeffrey was appointed by Phebe as a trustee and served in that capacity without official appointment by the Surrogates Court. (Id., 28.) In addition, he was a director of the Company's board, and was appointed as its president in January 2007' after the death of another brother who had been president. (Id.,46.) The complaint alleges that Cullen engaged in conflicted simultaneous representation of the Company on the one hand, and Jeffrey and Kirk on the other. (Id., 12.)
More particularly, the complaint alleges:
"Cullen aided and abetted Jeff in breaching his fiduciary duties as an officer and director of W.S. Wilson, and as a trustee of the trust that owned the Company, by engaging with him and/or Kirk to develop a strategy ("the Strategy") to exclude the Baugher Plaintiffs from the operation and management of the Company in order to ensure that a claim for more than $22 million of its retained earnings would be preserved for Phebe or Phebe's Estate, of which Kirk and Jeff became
the primary beneficiaries under a will that Cullen drafted and had Phebe execute days after being discharged from the hospital." (Id., 14.) Cullen allegedly gave legal advice to Jeffrey which he used as a basis for the Company not to hold meetings of the board of directors on which the Baugher plaintiffs had previously served. (Id., 16, 32-33, 56-70.) Cullen also allegedly gave legal advice to Jeffrey on the basis of which the Company did not recognize the Baugher plaintiffs as shareholders after the termination of the trust. (Id.,16.) As the complaint further alleges, Cullen's conflict of interest caused plaintiffs to become embroiled in numerous litigations and to incur legal fees that would not otherwise have been incurred. (Id., 237-241.)"
"An attorney's conflict of interest, as a result of dual representation of clients in violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility (22 NYCRR 1200.24), does not alone support a cause of action for legal malpractice. However, '"liability can follow where the client can show that he ... suffered actual damage as a result of the conflict."' (Kaminsky v Herrick, Feinstein LLP, 59 AD3d 1, 13 [1st Dept 2008], Iv denied 12 NY3d 715, quoting Tabner v Drake, 9 AD3d 606, 610 '
[2d Dept 2004]; Pillard v Goodman, 82 AD3d 541, 542 [t5t Dept 2011]; Ulico Cas. Co. v Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, 56 AD3d 1, 10 [1st Dept 2008].) In seeking dismissal, Cullen argues that its conduct was not the proximate cause of the cited litigations. (D. 's Memo. In Support at 14.) This issue cannot be determined as a matter of law on this record. The pleadings on their face allege Cullen's conflict of interest and damages in the form of attorney's fees incurred by the Company as a result. The documentary evidence, which consists of selected pleadings, decisions, or other papers in the various litigations in which Cullen allegedly had a conflict, does not demonstrate that the conflict did not result in damage to the Company. At least some of the litigations arguably involved a conflict of interest. For example, in July 2009, one month before Cullen withdrew as counsel for the Company, it filed a petition on behalf of Kirk, as preliminary executor of Phebe's Estate, seeking turnover of the Company's retained earnings from the trust. (Complaint, 186, 187.) While the lawsuit was brought against the trust rather than the Company,1 the estate and the Company arguably had differing interests with respect to the disposition of the retained earnings. Another example of a lawsuit that apparently involved a direct conflict was an Article 78 proceeding brought by plaintiffs Laraine and Lisa Baugher to compel Jeffrey, as president of the Company, to call a special meeting of the board of directors. The complaint alleges that although Cullen did not formally appear for Jeffrey in this proceeding, it assisted him in opposing the petition. (Id., 139-145.) Moreover, Jeffrey, in his official capacity as an officer of the Company, defended this proceeding based on advice that Cullen allegedly gave to him not to call a meeting of the board. (Id., 56- 70.)3 In contrast, some of the lawsuits arguably did not involve a conflict. For example, it is undisputed that Cullen did not represent Jeffrey in an arbitration of a wrongful termination claim (Arbitration) that he filed after some or all of the Baugher plaintiffs gained control of the board and terminated him. (Rice Aff., 33.)"