Elements of Legal Malpractice Causes of Action

The early days of the 20th century brought us the Robber barons, and the rise of corporations. The interconnectedness and remote nature of the relationships challenged the Courts, and led to a school of "better practice" business aspiration. Today, as long as a profit motive exists, there will be arrangements between persons which are created to mask the true nature of financial relationships. South Shore Neurologic Assoc., P.C. v Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C. ; 2011 NY Slip Op 50801(U) ; ; Supreme Court, Suffolk County ; Pines, J. is a prime example. We urge you to read the facts to determine the relationship between the law firm and its numerous corporate clients. Here are the rules, put forth by Justice Pines, to determine whether there has been breach of fiduciary duty.
 

"In order to establish a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a Plaintiff is required to demonstrate 1) the existence of a fiduciary relationship; 2) misconduct by the Defendant; and 3) damages directly caused by such conduct. Kurtzman v Bergstol, 40 AD3d 588, 835 NYS2d 644 ( 2d Dep't 2007). Whether a fiduciary relationship exists between parties is necessarily fact specific. AG Capital Funding Partners, LP v State Street Bank and Trust Co, 11 NY3d 146, 866 NYS2d 578, 896 NE2d 91 (2008). An attorney stands in a fiduciary relationship to his or her client, Graubard Mollen Dannett & Horowitz v Moscovitz, 86 NY2d 112, 629 NYS2d 1009, 653 NE2d 1179 (1995), and is thus charged with a high degree of undivided loyalty to his or her client. Kelly v Greason, 23 NY2d 368, 296 NYS2d 937, 244 NE2d 456 [*5](1968). However, a violation of a disciplinary rule, without more, is insufficient to state an action for breach of fiduciary duty. Schwartz v Olshan Grundman Frome & Rozensweig, 302 AD2d 193, 753 NYS2d 482 (1st Dep't 2003).

The statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty is dependent on the substantive remedy sought by the plaintiff. Thus, a six year statute applies, where equitable relief is sought; and a three year statute applies where the "injury to property" is the gravamen of the action. CPLR §§213(1), 214. The claim accrues, for statue of limitations purposes, when the fiduciary has repudiated his or her obligation. Westchester Religious Institute v Kamerman, 262 AD2d 131, 691 NYS2d 502 (1st Dep't 1999). Westchester Religious Institute v Kamerman, 262 AD2d 131, 691 NYS2d 502 (1st Dep't 1999). The doctrine of "continuous representation" tolls the running of this statute where the claim is brought against an attorney fiduciary but only so long as the defendant continued to represent the Plaintiff in connection with the transaction that is the subject of the action as opposed to general representation. Transport Workers Union of America Local 100 AFL-CIO v Schwartz, 32 AD3d 710, 821 NYS2d 53 (1st Dep't 2006).

Under the Code of Professional Responsibility (now the Rules of Professional Conduct, 22 NYCRR 1200 et. seq.) a lawyer may not concurrently represent clients with adverse interests nor take on a new client whose interests are adverse to an existing client. Where an attorney represents multiple clients and a situation arises posing potential conflicts among them, the attorney may not undertake the representation of any of the clients unless continued involvement is with the full consent of all parties upon complete disclosure. Kelly v Greason, supra. Whether an attorney-client relationship exists depends on the actions of the parties, as there are no set of rigid rules as to what is required to form an attorney-client relationship. See, McLenithan v McLenithan, 273 AD2d 757, 710 NYS2d 674 (3d Dep't 2000).

In an action for fraud, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant misrepresented or omitted a material fact which was false and known to be false and made for the purpose of the other party to rely upon it, justifiable reliance by such party on the misrepresentation or material omission, and injury resulting therefrom. Ross v Louise Wise Services, 8 NY3d 478, 836 NYS2d 509, 868 NE2d 189 (2007); see, Graubard Mollen Dannett & Horowitz v Moscovitz, 86 NY2d 112, 629 NYS2d 1009, 653 NE2d 1179 (1995). In this vein, an attorney may be liable to non-clients for wrongful acts if guilty of fraud or collusion or of a malicious or tortious [*6]act. Koncelik v Abady, 179 AD2d 942, 578 NYS2d 717, Callahan v Callahan, 127 AD2d 298, 514 NYS2d 819 (3d Dep't 1987). The statute of limitations for fraud is six years from the accrual of the claim or within two years from the actual or imputed discovery of the fraud. CPLR 213 (8), 203 (f); see, Trepuk v Frank, 44 NY2d 723, 405 NYS2d 452, 376 NE2d 924 (1978). As with the claim for breach of fiduciary duty, the continuous representation doctrine tolls the running of the statute of limitations against a professional defendant, but only so long as the defendant continues to represent the plaintiff in connection with the transaction and not merely the continuation of the general professional relationship. Transport Workers Union of America Local 100 AFL-CIO v Schwartz, supra. Punitive damages are not recoverable in the ordinary fraud case, but may be recovered where the fraudulent act is gross, involves high moral culpability and is aimed at the general public. Walker v Sheldon, 10 NY2d 401, 223 NYS2d 488, 179 NE2d 497 (1961).

Finally, one who owes a duty of fidelity or loyalty to another and is faithless in performance of such duty is generally disentitled to recover compensation for his services. Feiger v Iral Jewlry Ltd, 41 NY2d 928, 394 NYS2d 626, 363 NE2d 350 (1977). "

 

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