Differences Between Tort and Contract in Legal Malpractice

Legal malpractice claims are often stated in both tort and in contract, and the general feeling is that a contract cause of action in legal malpractice will almost always be a duplicitive or disguised tort claim that warrants dismissal. 

Not so inState of N.Y. Workers' Compensation Bd. v Madden  2014 NY Slip Op 05000
Decided on July 3, 2014  Appellate Division, Third Department.  Here the court incisively isolates the cause of action for return of fees from that of a professional mistake.

"Next, Glaser — the Trust's former counsel — contends that the unjust enrichment claim against him should have been dismissed in its entirety. The challenged cause of action seeks the return of legal fees paid to Glaser by the Trust, alleging, among other things, that Glaser had an [*5]attorney-client relationship with HWG and its principal before he was retained to represent the Trust, that Glaser did not disclose this prior representation to the Trust, that Glaser thereafter continued to perform legal services for HWG and the principal, and that he was paid from Trust funds for these services. Supreme Court found that, to the extent that this claim relied upon alleged conflicts of interest arising from the multiple representation, it sounded in legal malpractice and was time-barred. However, to the extent that the claim sought to recover fees paid by the Trust for legal services that had allegedly been rendered to HWG and/or its principal, the court found that plaintiff had stated a claim for breach of an express contract. Thus, the court converted that portion of the unjust enrichment claim to one for breach of contract and permitted the claim to survive with respect to the period on and after May 2, 2005. We reject Glaser's assertion that the surviving portion of the cause of action is a disguised professional malpractice claim subject to a three-year statute of limitations, as it does not allege that Glaser's professional services were negligently performed, but instead alleges a breach of the contract between the Trust and Glaser in that the Trust paid for services that Glaser did not render to it. Accordingly, that aspect of the claim is timely (see New York State Workers' Compensation Bd. v SGRisk, LLC, 116 AD3d 1148, 1151-1152 [2014]; see also Natural Organics Inc. v Anderson Kill & Olick, P.C., 67 AD3d 541, 542 [2009], lv dismissed 14 NY3d 881 [2010]; Henry v Brenner, 271 AD2d 647, 648 [2000])."

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