A Remarkable Case (Part 3)

Finally, in the case of Cabrera v Collazo  2014 NY Slip Op 00622  Decided on February 4, 2014
Appellate Division, First Department  Tom, J.  

How does the death of an attorney affect the relationship and the statute of limitations for the client's case?
 

"  Expansion of the record on a "more embracive and exploratory motion for summary judgment" (Rovello, 40 NY2d at 634) may or may not disclose facts demonstrating that, Tanzman was suddenly struck by a fatal and totally incapacitating episode of cancer rendering him unable to engage the services of another attorney to file a timely complaint on behalf of plaintiff or to communicate the necessity to do so. Thus, it would be premature to grant defendant's pre-answer motion and summarily dismiss the professional malpractice claim on the basis of the incomplete record before us (id.).

The cases relied upon in support of dismissal of the complaint state only that for the purpose of determining the limitations period for an action for professional malpractice, the statute of limitations begins to run on the date the client sustains injury (e.g. McCoy v Feinman, 99 NY2d 295, 301 [2002]; Glamm v Allen, 57 NY2d 87, 95 [1982]). These cases do not state that the severance of the attorney-client relationship, due to death of the attorney, prior to the accrual of the legal malpractice action deprives the client of any remedy for the inaction or negligence of the attorney which contributed to or resulted in the client's injury. The holding in these cases is not a bar to a legal malpractice claim against Tanzman for alleged failure, while he was alive, to notify plaintiff that he would be unable to file the summons and complaint in time or to enlist the attorneys in his firm to assist in this endeavor. This is especially so considering the short time period between the date of Tanzman's death and the expiration of the statute of limitations on plaintiff's underlying wrongful death action 11 days later.

Likewise, it has been held that the absence of any attorney-client relationship bars an action for attorney malpractice (e.g. Fortress Credit Corp. v Dechert LLP, 89 AD3d 615, 616 [1st Dept 2011], lv denied 19 NY3d 805 [2012] [allegedly faulty legal opinion relied upon was prepared by law firm retained by third parties, not by plaintiff]), as does the severance of the attorney-client relationship prior to any act of malpractice (e.g. Clissuras v City of New York, 131 AD2d 717 [2d Dept 1987], appeal dismissed 70 NY2d 795 [1987], appeal dismissed, cert denied 484 US 1053 [1988] [attorney withdrew after arranging for client's consultation with an actuary regarding her claim involving disputed calculation of pension benefits]). Similarly, such cases do not go so far as to hold that an attorney is absolved of liability for his part in permitting a statute of limitations to run against a client. To the contrary, in Clissuras, this Court expressly noted that counsel had withdrawn from representing the plaintiff "after advising her of the four-month Statute of Limitations" (id. at 719). Indeed, in Mortenson v Shea (62 AD3d 414, 414 [1st Dept 2009]), we noted that attorneys may be held liable for, inter alia, "neglect to prosecute an [*6]action." We stated that in pursuing an action on behalf of the plaintiff, the defendants created the impression that his claim remained viable and, under those circumstances, "defendants had a duty, at a minimum, to expressly advise plaintiff that a limitations period existed," including the need to take the necessary steps to ensure that an action was timely commenced (id. at 415). Whether Mortenson establishes an affirmative duty to advise a client with respect to the running of a limitations period, which the parties dispute, is not a question requiring immediate resolution. What Mortenson signifies is that an attorney will be held accountable for any misconduct that contributes to damages incurred because a statute of limitations is allowed to expire against a client. "

 

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