Is Legal Malpractice a Tort ?

Legal malpractice is a tort, right?  Everyone knows that it's a variety of negligence, and it can be pled in tort or in contract?  Technically, yes, but its really a different kind of tort.  It does not have unlimited damages (think emotional disturbance) it does not allow for windfalls (think "ascertainable damages") and in generally, the rules are very, very special for attorneys.

As an example, take Chang Yi Chen v Zhen Huang   2014 NY Slip Op 50517(U)   Decided on March 31, 2014   Supreme Court, Kings County  where Judge Schmidt freely admits that legal malpractice has public policy and other considerations attached to it that no other branch of the law requires.

"For the purpose of this motion, defendant does not dispute plaintiff's central allegation that the sale transactions were structured in a way that would have qualified for the deferral of the payment of capital gains taxes but for defendant's release of the proceeds relating to the sale property directly to plaintiff in contravention of the requirement that plaintiff could not receive such proceeds actually or constructively in order to take advantage of the section 1031 exchange (see United States v Okun, 453 Fed Appx 364, 366 n1 [4th Cir 2011], cert denied ___ US ___, 132 SCt 1953 [2012]; see also Endless Ocean, LLC, v Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelly, Dubin & Quartararo, 113 AD3d 587, 588-589 [2d Dept 2014]; Wo Yee Hing Realty Corp. v Stern, 99 AD3d 58, 64 [1st Dept 2012]).[FN3] The court's determination thus turns on whether plaintiff has a legal basis for obtaining damages from defendant.

"Damages in a legal malpractice case are designed to make the injured client whole'" (Rodolf v Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 NY3d 438, 443 [2007], quoting Campagnola v Mulholland, Minion & Roe, 76 NY2d 38, 42 [1990]). Generally, the same compensatory damages rules applicable in contract cases apply to damages allowed in legal malpractice cases (Campagnola, 76 NY2d at 42). Such damages are not intended to provide a party with a windfall (id. at 45). However, in light of the unique fiduciary and ethical obligations of attorneys, public policy, at times, requires that traditional contract rules of damages be applied in a different manner in cases involving legal malpratice (id. at 43-44).

Here, defendant correctly asserts that taxes paid are generally not recoverable as damages under New York law (see Menard M. Gertler, M.D., P.C. v Sol Masch & Co., 40 AD3d 282, 283 [1st Dept 2007]; Alpert v Shea Gould Climenko & Casey, 160 AD2d 67, 71-72 [1st Dept 1990]; see also Lama Holding Co. v Smith Barney, 88 NY2d 413, 422-423 [1996]). This is because tax liability results from a taxable event and allowing recovery for the payment of such tax would therefor constitute a windfall for a plaintiff (see Alpert, 160 AD2d at 71-72; Apple Bank for Sav. v PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 23 Misc 3d 1126 [A], 2009 NY Slip Op 50948 * 6 [U] [Sup Ct, New York County 2009], modified on other [*4]grounds 70 AD3d 438 [1st Dept 2010]; see also, Lama Holding Co., 88 NY2d at 423; Gaslow v KPMG LLP, 19 AD3d 264, 265 [1st Dept 2005], lv dismissed 5 NY3d 849 [2005]). In addition, damages that are uncertain or unduly speculative may not be recovered in New York (Ashland Mgt. Inc. v Janien, 82 NY2d 395, 403 [1993]; Farrar v Brooklyn Union Gas Co., 73 NY2d 802, 804 [1988]; see also Solin v Domino, 501 Fed Appx 19, 22 [2d Cir 2012]).

In conjunction, these principles preclude plaintiff from recovering as damages the amount he paid to the IRS as capital gains taxes, at least on the facts here, where plaintiff has not sold the replacement property. In this regard, in a properly completed section 1031 exchange, the basis from the property sold becomes the basis for the replacement property, and the recognition of any gain or loss is deferred until the replacement property is sold in a sale that does not involve a section 1031 exchange (see Ocmulgee Fields, Inc. v C.I.R., 613 F3d 1360, 1364-1365 [11th Cir 2011]). The tax consequences of such a deferral depend on many factors, including any change in the capital gains tax rate, IRS rules for determining capital gains, market forces affecting the value of the property, and plaintiff's ability to offset the gain against the losses (see generally Internal Revenue Code [USC] § 1001; Internal Revenue Code [USC] subtitle A, Chapter 1, subchapter P; IRS, Topic 409 - Capital Gains & Losses, http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc409.html [last reviewed or updated Feb. 27, 2014, accessed March 28, 2014]). As plaintiff has not sold the Purchase Property, any determination at this time that his capital gains liability would be less at the time of a future sale of the Purchase Property than he was actually required to pay involves future changeable events, and is thus inherently speculative (see Farrar, 73 NY2d at 804; Solin, 501 Fed Appx at 22; see also Ashland Mgt. Inc, 82 NY2d at 403; see also Menard M. Gertler, M.D., P.C., 40 AD3d at283; Alpert, 160 AD2d at 71-72).[FN4] "

 

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