Earlier Decisions Doom Later Case in Legal Malpractice
Justice Judith Gische writes clear and unambiguous decisions, and often, one side or the other gets hurt. Schindler v Lester Schwab Katz & Dwyer, LLP ; 2011 NY Slip Op 31519(U); Supreme Court, New York County; Docket Number: 115967/2010; Judge: Judith J. Gische is one example.
Plaintiff was sued by law firm 1 for fees. He retained defendants Lester Schwab to defend him in the attorney fee issue. This is an unusual choice for defense of a legal fee case, since it is likely that the Lester Schwab bills to defend an attorney fee case will equal the fees being sought in the case. Nevertheless, the defense ensued and the case went bad. Eventually, Lester Schwab also asked to be relieved, and cited fee issues. A default judgment was later entered against plaintiff for discovery failures. Was Lester Schwab negligent in the way it defended plaintiff?
"Here, the issue in dispute is the defendants’ alleged legal malpractice. The doctrine of collateral estoppel is a flexible doctrine grounded in the facts and realities of a particular litigation which should not be rigidly or mechanically applied since it is, at its core, an equitable doctrine reflecting general concepts of fairness (Buechel v. Bain, 97 N.Y.2d at 303). Applying this legal principle, it is readily apparent that the issue of whether Lester Schwab capably represented Schindler in the legal fees action was decided, not only in Judge Kornreich’s decision granting Lester Schwab’s motion and in the decision granting Fish & Richardson’s motion to strike Schindler’s answer and
allowing it to enter a default judgment against him, but also addressed in the decision of Judge Richter rendered on appeal. The decisions by Judge Kornreich were before the Appellate Division when Schindler appealed and it is clear from Judge Richter’s decision that the Appellate Division rejected all of Schindler’s explanations and defenses for why he failed to provide discovery.
In any event, even if the court were persuaded that Schindler’s claims are not collaterally estopped by the events that preceded this action, based on this record, plaintiffs claims are entirely too speculative to support a recovery against the defendants, affording the plaintiff the benefit of every possible inference (Lombardi v. Giannattasio, 192 A.D.2d 512 [2nd Dept.,1993]). Although Schindler has the right to rest on his complaint in opposing the motion to dismiss, he has not provided a sworn affidavit in support of his cross motion explaining why he did not comply with Judge Kornreich’s discovery orders once he obtained new counsel. His failure to make
amends belies any claim that Schindler “misunderstood” the proceedings against him or
was mislead by counsel about what his discovery responsibilities were. As for Schindler’s claims against Attorney Murphy individually, they are entirely without any factual basis. Attorney Murphy provided the November 26, 2008 affidavit because he was ordered to by Judge Kornreich pursuant to her order of November 6, 2008. The order was issued in connection with Fish & Richardson’s motion for leave to serve a subpoena on Schindler. She ordered that Fish & Richardson “seek and obtain an affidavit from someone with knowledge from plaintiffs prior firm Lester Schwab,
(Jonathan Murphy), as to whether a copy of my decision relieving them as counsel was
served upon defendant and when.” Thus, Attorney Murphy’s affidavit was little more than an affidavit of service, not the destructive document that Schindler portrays it to be.
Defendants' motion for the imposition of sanctions pursuant to Part 130-1 .l[c] furnished Schindler and his attorneys with adequate notice that such relief would be considered and renders a formal hearing unnecessary (Minister, Elders and Deacons of Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of City of New York v. 198 Broadway, Inc., 76 N.Y.2d 41 1 [1990; Dubai Bank Ltd v. Ayyub 187 AD2d 373 [1st Dept 19921). In deciding the what sanction should be imposed, the court has considered the time and attention this matter has involved and the severity (frivolity) of the claim made against
defendants. The court orders that plaintiff Schindler and his attorneys, the firm of Danzig, Fishman & Decea, pay the sum of $5,000 as costs to Lester Schwab and Jonathan A. Murphy, Esq. The Clerk shall enter judgment against Schindler and his attorneys, jointly and severally, in the manner provided in the decretal section appearing directly below."