Consistency as a Virtue
Here's a fairly simple case. Plaintiff signs a real estate contract with a mortgage contingency. If she cannot obtain a mortgage she must give notice. If she properly gives notice she gets her down payment back. She hires attorney who negligently fails to give notice. She does not get her down payment back. Legal malpractice?
The opaque decision from the Second Department tells us no. It doesn't exactly tell us why,. Beyond that, the rationale is murky. Bells v Foster 2011 NY Slip Op 03195 Decided on April 19, 2011 Appellate Division, Second Department say: "Here, the plaintiff failed to establish her prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law because she failed to demonstrate that any negligence on the defendant's part in failing to timely cancel the contract of sale on her behalf was the sole proximate cause of her damages (see Snolis v Clare, 81 AD3d 923; see also Selletti v Liotti, 22 AD3d 739; compare Logalbo v Plishkin, Rubano & Baum, 163 AD2d 511). Accordingly, the Supreme Court erred in granting the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability.
The Supreme Court properly denied the defendant's cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The defendant failed to make a prima facie showing of his entitlement to judgment as a matter of law since he failed to show that the plaintiff was unable to prove at least one of the essential elements of her legal malpractice cause of action (see Mueller v Fruchter, 71 AD3d 650, 651; Velie v Ellis Law, P.C., 48 AD3d 674, 675; Pedro v Walker, 46 AD3d 789, 790; Eisenberger v Septimus, 44 AD3d 994, 995; Shopsin v Siben & Siben, 268 AD2d 578, 578-579). "
Well, then, plaintiff failed to show that the attorney negligence was the "sole proximate cause" Isn't that enough?
But, then, what of Barnett v. Schwartz, 2007 NY Slip Op 09712 [47 AD3d 197] ?
"First, the parties have not cited, and research has not revealed, any case from the Court of Appeals or any other court expressly holding that "but for" causation is synonymous with sole proximate cause, or that requires a degree of causation in legal malpractice cases greater than proximate cause, i.e., greater than that which must be typically proved as against any other professional or lay defendant in a negligence action. Similarly, the parties have not cited, and research has not revealed, any case discussing or identifying any basis for singling out attorneys for special treatment on the issue of causation. The Pattern Jury Instruction on legal malpractice, which focuses upon the lawsuit-within-a-lawsuit scenario, does not expressly use either the phrase "but for" or "proximate cause" in its formulation (PJI 2:152). However, the comments to the instruction, while noting the "but for" formulation, provide that a defendant-attorney's negligence need only be [*5] "a" proximate cause of damages and refer the reader to the general Pattern Jury Instruction on proximate cause (1 NY PJI 2:152, at 872, 880  PJI 2:70). Moreover, our reading of the case law does not reveal that a heightened standard for causation is actually being applied in legal malpractice cases. Rather, all results can be explained by application of general principles of proximate cause. For example, in the lawsuit-within-a-lawsuit scenario, the plaintiff-client must prove that but for the defendant-attorney's negligence they would have prevailed in the underlying action.
Well, consistency may be overrated.