Good Practice and Its Application to Legal Malpractice

It's said that there is a general level of good practice standards for attorneys in New York, and its well settled that all attorneys are expected to practice at the level (admittedly not the very highest level) of good practice among competent attorneys in New York.  What does this actually mean?

The question of how a competent and qualified attorney would handle a case is the crux of Bua v Purcell & Ingrao, P.C. 2012 NY Slip Op 06908  Appellate Division, Second Department . At issue is whether attorney committed malpractice in the termination of a real estate contract of sale.

"The plaintiff commenced this action to recover damages allegedly sustained as a result of the defendants' legal malpractice. The amended complaint alleged that the plaintiff retained the defendants to represent and advise him in connection with the sale of certain real property. The plaintiff entered into a contract of sale with a buyer, who tendered a deposit to be held in escrow. The amended complaint further alleged that, prior to the closing date, the buyer's attorney attempted to terminate the contract of sale because the buyer was unable to obtain financing for the purchase. The defendant Joseph A. Ingrao informed the plaintiff that the buyer wished to cancel the contract of sale, and the plaintiff agreed to cancel the contract and return the deposit.

The amended complaint stated that Ingrao sent the buyer's attorney a letter "purporting to terminate" the contract of sale and returning the deposit. More than seven months later, however, the buyer attempted to revive the contract of sale and purchase the property under its terms. The plaintiff refused, maintaining that the contract had been terminated. The buyer subsequently commenced an action against the plaintiff for specific performance of the contract of sale and filed a notice of pendency. In that action, the plaintiff argued, inter alia, that the contract of sale, had been terminated when the deposit was returned. The plaintiff also commenced a holdover proceeding. The plaintiff ultimately prevailed in the specific performance action.

The amended complaint asserted that the defendants committed malpractice by failing to "obtain a clear and unambiguous termination of the [contract of sale] after [the buyer's] attorneys advised Ingrao that she wished to terminate the [contract of sale]." The amended complaint listed various things that the plaintiff claimed the defendants "should have done" in order to accomplish [*2]a "clear and unambiguous" termination of the contract of sale. "

"The standard to which the defendant's conduct is to be compared is not that of the most highly skilled attorney, nor is it that of the average member of the legal profession, but that of an attorney who is competent and qualified (see Restatement [Second] of Torts: Negligence § 299A, Comment e). The conduct of legal matters routinely "involve[ ] questions of judgment and discretion as to which even the most distinguished members of the profession may differ" (Byrnes v Palmer, 18 App Div 1, 4, affd 160 NY 699). Absent an express agreement, an attorney is not a guarantor of a particular result (see Byrnes v Palmer, 18 App Div at 4; see also 1B NY PJI3d 2:152, at 140-141 [2012]), and may not be held "liable in negligence for . . . the exercise of appropriate judgment that leads to an unsuccessful result" (Rubinberg v Walker, 252 AD2d 466, 467; see Grago v Robertson, 49 AD2d 645, 646; see also PJI 2:152).

It follows that "[the] selection of one among several reasonable courses of action does not constitute malpractice" (Rosner v Paley, 65 NY2d 736, 738; see Dimond v Kazmierczuk & McGrath, 15 AD3d 526, 527). Attorneys are free to act in a manner that is "reasonable and consistent with the law as it existed at the time of representation," without exposing themselves to liability for malpractice (Darby & Darby v VSI Intl., 95 NY2d 308, 315; see Noone v Stieglitz, 59 AD3d 505, 507; Iocovello v Weingrad & Weingrad, 4 AD3d 208, 208). "

 

"In conclusion, as the plaintiff effectively concedes, he is estopped from denying that the defendants effected a legally valid termination of the contract of sale. To the extent that the allegations in the amended complaint are not barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel, they fail to state a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice. Accordingly, the defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint was properly granted and the plaintiff's cross motion was properly denied as academic."

 

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