An Old Trap for the Unwary in Legal Malpractice
Legal malpractice and arbitration, even arbitrations that are on the edge of the legal malpractice case have an uneasy relationship. Courts are more than willing to dismiss legal malpractice cases because of an earlier arbitration. It need not have been on the ultimate merits of whether the attorney departed from good and accepted practice. It may have been over whether the attorney should be awarded any fees, or over whether the attorney should have been permitted to withdraw from the case, and today, the First Department conjured another situation inFeinberg v Boros
2012 NY Slip Op 06114 Decided on September 11, 2012 Appellate Division, First Department . Now, the question is whether an arbitration between plaintiff and his former business partner limits plaintiff's right to sue his attorneys for claimed departures after the arbitration.
"At issue on this appeal is whether the defendant members of a law firm committed legal [*2]malpractice by not advising the plaintiff, Herbert Feinberg, that an agreement with his former business partner to limit the collateral estoppel effect of an arbitration award would have been enforceable in Feinberg's lawsuit against a third party. As set forth in greater detail below, precedent, sparse as it is on this issue, nevertheless mandates that such limiting agreements are not carved-out exceptions to normal collateral estoppel principles. We therefore find that where, as here, an issue has been fully and vigorously litigated, no limiting agreement as to an arbitration award may bar the assertion of a collateral estoppel defense by a third party as to that issue. "
"It is well established that the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars a litigant from disputing an issue in another proceeding when that issue was decided against the litigant in a proceeding in which he had a "full and fair opportunity" to contest the matter. Schwartz v. Public Adm'r of County of Bronx, 24 N.Y.2d 65, 71, 298 N.Y.S.2d 955, 959, 246 N.E.2d 725, 728 (1969). Collateral estoppel preserves party and judicial resources by preventing relitigation of matters that have already been resolved. Further, it [*6]prevents inconsistent results. 24 N.Y.2d at 74, 298 N.Y.S.2d at 962. Collateral estoppel can be asserted in a new case by a nonparty to the original proceeding. B.R. DeWitt, Inc. v. Hall, 19 N.Y.2d 141, 147, 278 N.Y.S.2d 596, 601, 225 N.E.2d 195, 198 (1967). Moreover, collateral estoppel principles "apply as well to awards in arbitration as they do to adjudications in judicial proceedings." Matter of American Ins. Co. [Messinger-Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co.], 43 N.Y.2d 184, 189-190, 401 N.Y.S.2d 36, 39, 371 N.E.2d 798, 801 (1977), citing Rembrandt Indus., v. Hodges Intl., 38 N.Y.2d 502, 381 N.Y.S.2d 451, 344 N.E.2d 383 (1976).
Confusion has arisen in this case because the Messinger Court also held, seemingly inconsistently, that "[i]n circumstances involving arbitration, ... the parties themselves can formulate their own contractual restrictions on carry-over estoppel effect." Messinger, 43 N.Y.2d at 194, 401 N.Y.S.2d at 42. On closer analysis, however, it is clear that the confusion is not warranted.
The ability of parties to formulate their own contractual restrictions as to the estoppel effect of arbitration awards is not, in reality, a carved-out exception to normal collateral estoppel principles. The idea of entering into a contractual limitation was established by the Messinger Court in the context of a dispute arising from an arbitration between insurance carriers. Messinger, 43 N.Y.2d at 187, 401 N.Y.S.2d at 37. The Court recognized that arbitration hearings may be "summary, pro-forma proceeding[s]" and that the opportunity "for summary dispositions should not be inhibited by automatically according a binding estoppel effect to the first determination." Messinger, 43 N.Y.2d at 191, 401 N.Y.S.2d at 42. Hence, the Court concluded that in arbitration "the parties themselves can formulate their own contractual restrictions on carry-over estoppel effect." 43 N.Y.2d at 193, 401 N.Y.S.2d at 42. However, the Court cautioned that "[t]hey cannot, of course, impose similar limitations which would impair or diminish the rights of third persons." Messinger, 43 N.Y.2d at 194, 401 N.Y.S.2d at 42. This latter caution by the Court has been characterized as dicta particularly in view of two appellate division determinations that appeared to uphold agreements that imposed such a limitation on third parties. See Kerins v. Prudential Prop. & Cas., 185 A.D.2d 403, 585 N.Y.S.2d 637, 638(3rd Dept. 1992); also Matter of State Farm Ins. Co. v. Smith, 277 A.D.2d 390, 717 N.Y.S.2d 210 (2d Dept. 2000). "