A Remarkable Defense That Shocks the First Department
Three concepts are discussed in this very unusual legal malpractice case. The first is the relationship between attorneys withdrawing and their duties to clients, the second is the effect of an attorney's death (and how he died) on the client's interests, and the third is when the statute of limitations commences. From Cabrera v Collazo 2014 NY Slip Op 00622 Decided on February 4, 2014 Appellate Division, First Department .
First, the death of an attorney. "The remarkable defense proffered in this professional malpractice action is that an attorney who neglects a matter so that the statute of limitations runs against his client cannot be held legally accountable if the attorney happens to expire before the applicable limitations period. A cause of action for attorney malpractice requires: " (1) the negligence of the attorney; (2) that the negligence was the proximate cause of the loss sustained; and (3) proof of actual damages'" (Kaminsky v Herrick, Feinstein LLP, 59 AD3d 1, 9 [1st Dept 2008], lv denied 12 NY3d 715 , quoting Mendoza v Schlossman, 87 AD2d 606, 606-607 [2d Dept 1982]). The pleadings, as "[a]mplified by affidavits and exhibits in the record" (Crosland by New York City Tr. Auth., 68 NY2d 165, 167 ), contain allegations from which these elements can be made out and, thus, state a viable cause of action so as to survive a pre-answer motion to dismiss the complaint.
This legal malpractice action was brought by plaintiff Milagros Cabrera against defendants Shelley B. Levy, as executor of the estate of Cary M. Tanzman, Esq., and the Law Office of Cary M. Tanzman (collectively, the Tanzman defendants) and Salvador Collazo, who participated in plaintiff's representation. The Tanzman defendants brought a pre-answer motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a cause of action based on documentary evidence (CPLR 3211[a], ), particularly Cary Tanzman's death certificate. The gravamen of their defense is that since the attorney-client relationship was terminated by Tanzman's death on October 24, 2010, Tanzman and his law firm cannot be held liable for any damages sustained by plaintiff as a result of the subsequent running of the statutory limitations period on November 4, 2010 (EPTL 5-4.1).
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 ), as we must on a pre-answer motion to dismiss (see Arrington v New York Times Co., 55 NY2d 433, 442 , cert denied 459 US 1146 ), 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. "
We will continue with this Case in the next post.