A Remarkable Case (Part 2)

In Cabrera v Collazo  2014 NY Slip Op 00622  Decided on February 4, 2014  Appellate Division, First Department  Tom, J. the question of when the statute of limitations commences and the effect of the death of an attorney.
 

"In late September, Tanzman filed a certificate of lateness with Surrogate's Court stating that "another attorney" had been contacted initially by the family and "did nothing on the file for over a year." It was followed by a letter of September 30, 2010 asking that letters of administration be issued "as soon as is possible because there is a wrongful death matter associated with the above-named decedent and the Statute of Limitations will be expiring shortly." Surrogate's Court issued letters of limited administration on October 6. On October 14, Collazo was sentenced to 24 months' imprisonment on the federal immigration and visa fraud charges [FN2]. On October 24, Tanzman died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the statute of limitations on plaintiff's wrongful death action expired 11 days later on November 4. No complaint was ever filed on behalf of plaintiff, and this action for professional malpractice ensued.

Other than a death certificate, there is no evidence concerning Tanzman's treatment or the course of his illness or when he was hospitalized. Nor is there any information about the nature of his law practice, beyond a letterhead that identifies three other attorneys as "of counsel." While it is clear from the letter dated September 30, 2010 that Tanzman was aware of the impending expiration of the statute of limitations against his client, it is unknown whether he took any steps to prepare a complaint for filing or whether he attempted to enlist the assistance of any other attorney including the attorneys of counsel in his firm.

According to the Tanzman defendants, neglect of a client matter by an attorney is not actionable if, as here, the attorney dies before the applicable limitations period runs against the client. Granted, it has been held that, for the purpose of determining the timeliness of a professional malpractice action, the action accrues "when all the facts necessary to the cause of action have occurred and an injured party can obtain relief in court." That a cause of action might accrue when the plaintiff actually sustains a loss, however, does not require the conclusion that an attorney is absolved of responsibility for any and all consequences of his neglect of the matter simply because it occurred prior to accrual of an actionable claim. Giving plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference that can reasonably be drawn from the pleadings (Rovello v Orofino Realty Co., 40 NY2d 633, 634 [1976]), as we must on a pre-answer motion to dismiss (see Arrington v New York Times Co., 55 NY2d 433, 442 [1982], cert denied 459 US 1146 [1983]), it appears that the inaction of counsel rendered the lapse of plaintiff's cause of [*4]action not merely possible — or even probable — but inevitable. On a motion directed at the sufficiency of the pleadings, the issue is whether the facts alleged fit within any cognizable theory of recovery, not whether the complaint is artfully pleaded (see Hirschhorn v Hirschhorn, 194 AD2d 768 [2d Dept 1993]), and the circumstances of this matter do not warrant dismissal of the action, at this juncture, as against the Tanzman defendants.

The extent of the duty imposed on the attorney to commence a timely action depends on the immediacy of the running of the statutory period, and no duty will be imposed where sufficient time remains for successor counsel to act to protect the client's interests in pursuing a claim (see Golden v Cascione, Chechanover & Purcigliotti, 286 AD2d 281 [1st Dept 2001] [defendant law firm relieved 2½ years before claim expired]). Where, as here, the expiration of the statute of limitations is imminent and the possibility that another attorney might be engaged to commence a timely action is foreclosed, there is a duty to take action to protect the client's rights.

Plaintiff is entitled to the inference that Tanzman died as a result of a chronic, terminal illness that he knew, or should have known, presented the immediate risk that his ability to represent his clients' interests might be impaired (see Yuko Ito v Suzuki, 57 AD3d 205, 207 [1st Dept 2008]). Here, defendants offered no evidence to elaborate on the cause or circumstances surrounding Tanzman's death. The submitted certificate of death for Tanzman merely states that Tanzman passed away on October 24, 2010 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The record suggests that plaintiff had cancer, and that his death may have been foreseeable, but the nature and duration of his illness cannot be determined from the death certificate and defendants' other submissions. Further, the record reflects that Tanzman was well aware that Collazo could not be relied upon to assist with plaintiff's representation. According to Tanzman's own statement, Collazo had done nothing on the matter in over a year, and Tanzman's retainer agreement assigned Collazo only a limited role in the case. In any event, as of September 2010, when Tanzman expressed his concern over the running of the statute of limitations in a letter to Surrogate's Court, Collazo had been convicted on a federal criminal offense and was facing sentencing and disbarment. Plaintiff is entitled to the factual inference that, at this late juncture and mindful of his ill health, Tanzman was aware of the need to prepare and file a complaint or to arrange for one to be filed as soon as the necessary letters of administration were received. The letters of administration was issued on October 6, 2010. Tanzman neither filed a complaint nor engaged another attorney to file one in his stead despite the availability of three attorneys associated with the firm as of counsel.

No discovery has been conducted and, in the absence of any evidence that the onset of Tanzman's final episode of illness was sudden, unanticipated and completely debilitating, the failure to seek assistance with the filing of a timely complaint represents a failure to protect plaintiff's interests. Further, plaintiff was not informed that the statute of limitations was about to expire so that she could protect her claim. Milagros Cabrera stated that in August 2011, eight months after the statute of limitations of plaintiff's cause of action had expired, Tanzman's law office mailed the case file to her in response to her efforts to learn the status of the matter. It was then that Cabrera for the first time learned that Tanzman was deceased. She later discovered, [*5]after consultation with another law office, that plaintiff's claims were time-barred and that Collazo was incarcerated. Finally, even if plaintiff had been put on notice to engage another attorney to initiate the wrongful death action, no means are identified by which the case file might have been obtained from the Tanzman firm to permit substitute counsel to file a timely complaint. In short, while the statute of limitations had not yet run at the time of Tanzman's death, nothing in the record suggests that there was any available means by which plaintiff might have preserved her wrongful death action. According the facts their most favorable intendment, at the time of Tanzman's death, the running of the statute of limitations against his client was a foregone conclusion because intervention by substitute counsel was not possible. "

 

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