A Mixed Bag in this Estate Legall Malpractice Case
The area of estate legal malpractice was seismically upset when the Court of Appeals decided Schneider v. Finmann. Here, inSobel v Ansanelli 2012 NY Slip Op 06202 Decided on September 19, 2012 Appellate Division, Second Department we do not see the standing issue. This decision works its way through a legal malpractice, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and duress claims.
"In August 2005 the decedent, Mary Ellen Malone, retained the defendant Vincent W. Ansanelli and the defendant law firm, Ansanelli, Kugler & Svendsen, LLP, to perform estate planning services, including asset protection, the preparation and filing of an application for Medicaid benefits, and the transfer of the decedent's cooperative apartment to her daughter, Christina Sobel. At the time the decedent retained the defendants, the alleged total value of her assets was approximately $190,000, and she allegedly had debts of approximately $60,000. More than two years after the decedent's death, by summons and complaint filed on February 3, 2011, Sobel commenced this action asserting six causes of action alleging, in effect, legal malpractice, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and duress. The plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claims, set forth under the first and second causes of action, were premised upon allegations that the defendants had charged excessive legal fees totaling over $44,000 for the protection of the decedent's relatively modest estate.
Prior to joinder of issue, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), (5), and (7). In support of their motion, they submitted, inter alia, copies of invoices allegedly sent to the plaintiff, and argued that these invoices established a defense to some [*2]of the plaintiff's claims because she had ratified them by retaining them without objection, making partial payment, and signing an agreement promising to pay the balance due. The defendants also submitted a document from the City of New York Human Resources Administration dated July 30, 2008, which indicated that the decedent's application for Medicaid benefits had been retroactively granted from November 1, 2006, to the date of her death on April 28, 2008. The defendants additionally contended that none of the plaintiff's claims stated a cause of action, and that the plaintiff's legal malpractice claim was barred by the statute of limitations. "
Contrary to the defendants' contention, the Supreme Court properly denied those branches of their motion which were pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the first and second causes of action alleging, in effect, breach of fiduciary duty premised on the theory that the defendants charged excessive legal fees. A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) may be granted "only where the documentary evidence utterly refutes plaintiff's factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law" (Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 NY2d 314, 326; see Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 88; Harris v Barbera, 96 AD3d 904; Parekh v Cain, 96 AD3d 812). To qualify as documentary evidence, printed materials "must be unambiguous and of undisputed authenticity" (Fontanetta v John Doe 1, 73 AD3d 78, 86; see Flushing Sav. Bank, FSB v Siunykalimi, 94 AD3d 807, 808; Yeshiva Chasdei Torah v Dell Equity, LLC, 90 AD3d 746, 746-747). Further, on a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) for failure to state a cause of action, the court must accept the facts alleged in the pleading as true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 NY2d at 326; Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d at 87).
Here, the invoices which the defendants submitted in support of their position that the plaintiff ratified the legal fees charged for services to the decedent were of disputed authenticity and did not constitute "documentary evidence" within the meaning of CPLR 3211(a)(1) (see Reiver v Burkhart Wexler & Hirschberg, LLP, 73 AD3d 1149, 1150; see also Parekh v Cain, 96 AD3d 812; Granada Condominium III Assn. v Palomino, 78 AD3d 996, 997). In any event, the invoices did not conclusively establish, as a matter of law, a defense to the first and second causes of action (see Reiver v Burkhart Wexler & Hirschberg, LLP, 73 AD3d at 1150-1151; see also Cannon v First Natl. Bank of E. Islip, 98 AD2d 704, 705, affd 62 NY2d 1003). Furthermore, the factual allegations in the first and second causes of action are sufficient to state a cause of action sounding in breach of [*3]fiduciary duty (see Reiver v Burkhart Wexler & Hirschberg, LLP, 73 AD3d at 1150). Thus, dismissal of the first and second causes of action pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) was not warranted.
The Supreme Court properly, in effect, granted that branch of the defendants' motion which was to dismiss the sixth cause of action alleging, in effect, legal malpractice as time-barred pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) only to the extent of directing dismissal of so much of that cause of action as was predicated upon alleged acts or omissions occurring more than three years prior to the commencement of the action. Dismissal of the sixth cause of action in its entirety as time-barred was not warranted because, to the extent that the plaintiff's legal malpractice claim is predicated upon the defendants' alleged failure to protect the value of estate assets consisting of the cooperative apartment, the defendants' own submissions raise an issue of fact as to whether the continuous representation doctrine tolled the statute of limitations until February 3, 2008, the date of the final invoice for legal services performed in connection with the sale of the apartment (see Golub v Baer, Marks & Upham, 172 AD2d 489, 490; see also Macaluso v Del Col, 95 AD3d 959, 960; Putnam County Temple & Jewish Ctr., Inc. v Rhinebeck Sav. Bank, 87 AD3d 1118, 1120; Howish v Perrotta, 84 AD3d 1312, 1313). Moreover, accepting the facts alleged in the amended complaint as true and according the plaintiff the benefit of every possible inference, the plaintiff's allegation that the defendants negligently failed to protect the cooperative apartment states a legally cognizable claim to recover damages for legal malpractice (see Magnus v Sklover, 95 AD3d 837; Esposito v Noto, 90 AD3d 825). Accordingly, the Supreme Court also properly denied that branch of the defendants' motion which was to dismiss the sixth cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7). "