An Unfixable Mistake and Legal Malpractice
Immigration law legal malpractice cases are relatively rare. One reason is that the plaintiff is usually not int he US and a second reason is that damages are somewhat difficult to calculate, in these days of purely economic or "out-of-pocket" damages. Here is an unusual case. Delgado v Bretz & Coven, LLP 2013 NY Slip Op 04720 Decided on June 20, 2013 Appellate Division, First Department Manzanet-Daniels, J., J.
"In this case we determine whether plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that defendants' legal advice concerning the consequences of applying for an adjustment of immigration status constitutes malpractice, and whether she has sufficiently alleged that such misguided advice was the but-for cause of her ultimately being taken into custody and deported. [*2]
Plaintiff is a native of Ecuador. On May 5, 1999, she first attempted to enter the United States at Houston International Airport by falsely presenting herself as a returning resident alien, using a visa belonging to her cousin, who has the same surname. Plaintiff was removed and returned to Ecuador, but in December 2000, reentered the United States without inspection by crossing the Mexican border. As an alien previously ordered removed who thereafter entered the United States without permission, plaintiff was deemed "inadmissible" pursuant to Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) § 212(a)(9)(C)(i)(II) (8 USC § 1182[a][C][i][II]), and, by statute, could not apply for readmission until ten years had passed from the date of her last departure from the United States (INA § 212(a)(9)(C)(ii) (8 USC § 1182[a][C][ii]).
On January 8, 2006, plaintiff married a United States citizen, Jarret Kahn. On February 23, 2006, plaintiff retained defendant Bretz & Coven LLP to represent her before the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) in order to obtain legal residency in the United States. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Kerry Bretz, a partner at the firm, determined that she could apply for adjustment of status without leaving the United States, based on a Ninth Circuit precedent, Perez-Gonzalez v Ashcroft (379 F3d 783, 788-789 [9th Cir 2004]).
On July 11, 2006, the firm filed several immigration forms with CIS, including a Form I-485 petition for adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident, Form I-212 for permission to reapply after deportation or removal, and a Form I-130 petition for classification of an alien as an immediate relative of a United States citizen.
On October 26, 2006, plaintiff and her husband appeared with defendants for an interview at CIS, which denied her requests on the I-485 and I-212 forms that same day. CIS found her ineligible for adjustment of her status because she had entered the United States without permission after having been removed. CIS found that plaintiff did not qualify for a waiver of inadmissibility, as set forth in section (a)(9)(C)(ii) because 10 years had not yet passed from the date of her last departure from the United States, and she did not seek permission for readmission before she reentered in December 2000.
Plaintiff was arrested on the same day by immigration authorities, who reinstated her expedited removal order of May 5, 1999. They released her from detention the same day pursuant to an agreement reached with her lawyers, but the reinstatement order remained in effect. "
"We now modify to reinstate plaintiff's claim for legal malpractice against defendant law firm and Bretz. The claim against defendant Guadagno was properly dismissed. Inasmuch as the well-reasoned and thorough Second Circuit opinion was not contingent on defendant Guadagno's argument or briefing, it was not a but-for cause of plaintiff's deportation.
We disagree with the motion court's conclusion that due to intervening events, defendant law firm and Bretz's malpractice was not a "but for" cause of plaintiff's removal from the United States. Plaintiff was unambiguously ineligible for relief under prevailing case law when defendants submitted her application to immigration authorities. Once her application was submitted and denied and the removal order reinstated, any efforts by Kahn, whom plaintiff had retained to represent her after terminating defendants' services, were too late to remedy the situation. By that point, the only intervening event sufficient to break the causal chain would have been a change in the relevant immigration law. The passage of four years between plaintiff's consultation with defendants and her removal did not disrupt the chain of causation.
When defendants submitted plaintiff's application, the government had already publicly announced that it would not grant relief to those in her position in light of the BIA's decision in Matter of Torres-Garcia (see e.g. CIS Interoffice Memo dated Mar. 31, 2006, p. 2, attached to the complaint and available at http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Laws/Memoranda/Static_Files_Memoranda/Archives%201998-2008/2006/perezgonz033106.pdf, stating that in light of Torres-Garcia, "in any case where an alien is inadmissible under section 212(a)(9)(C)(i) of the INA and 10 years have not elapsed since the date of the alien's last departure from the United States, USCIS should deny any Form I-212 requesting consent to reapply for admission"). However, instead of advising plaintiff concerning the clear implications of the BIA's ruling in Torres-Garcia — to which the Ninth Circuit owed deference under Chevron USA — defendants assured plaintiff "she would not be deported much less detained" if she applied.
Given plaintiff's allegations that she had no chance of obtaining immigration relief and that defendants failed to thoroughly discuss the possibility, if not certainty, of reinstatement of the order of deportation and removal upon submission of the application, plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that defendants followed an unreasonable course of action in pursuing the application (see Phoenix Erectors, LLC v Fogarty, 90 AD3d 468, 469 [1st Dept 2011]). Moreover, she has sufficiently alleged proximate cause, because the submission of the application alerted authorities to her status, which led to the issuance of the reinstatement order and ultimately to her removal (see Rudolf v Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 NY3d 438, 442 ; Phoenix Erectors, 90 AD3d at 469). Plaintiff's unlawful status alone did not trigger her removal, since she had resided in the United States, albeit unlawfully, for more than six years; she was removed only after defendants affirmatively alerted immigration authorities to her presence. The record does not indicate on this motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 that plaintiff would have otherwise come to the attention of the immigration authorities. Without discovery on the issue, it cannot yet be said, as defendants assert, that plaintiff would have been deported regardless of defendants' malpractice. Indeed, had plaintiff waited four more years she would have been eligible to apply for reinstatement under INA § 212(a)(9)(C)(ii), which provides that an alien in [*5]plaintiff's position can apply for admission if more than ten years have passed from the date of the alien's last departure from the United States."