Not Legal Malpractice, But Could Be Breach Of Contract

Plaintiff sues attorney over fees.  Claim is that attorney failed to try to get client's wife to pay attorney fees in a custody dispute.  Attorney successfully defends legal malpractice case on the "but for" aspect.  A question of overbilling, however, remains in the case on the theory of breach of contract.

"The plaintiff commenced this action, inter alia, to recover damages for legal malpractice and breach of contract against the defendant, the attorney who represented him in a prior proceeding against his former wife in the Family Court (see Matter of Tanenbaum v Caputo, 81 AD3d 839). The defendant moved pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint. The Supreme Court granted the motion."

"Here, the defendant established that he was entitled to the dismissal of the first cause of action, which alleged legal malpractice, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7). Contrary to the plaintiff's contentions, the complaint in this action, as well as certain documentary evidence before the Supreme Court, including, inter alia, a portion of the settlement agreement between the plaintiff and his former wife, conclusively established as a matter of law that, under the terms of the settlement agreement (see generally Trinagel v Boyar, 99 AD3d 792, 792; Matter of Berns v Halberstam, 46 AD3d 808, 809), the plaintiff was not entitled to an award of an attorney's fee in the proceeding against his former wife before the Family Court (see Matter of Tanenbaum v Caputo, 81 AD3d 839), and that the defendant therefore did not commit malpractice in failing to obtain an award of an attorney's fee in that proceeding. Moreover, the retainer agreement between the parties here conclusively refuted any claim based on the plaintiff's allegation that the defendant assured him that the plaintiff's former wife would be responsible for the payment of all legal fees in that proceeding. Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly granted that branch of the defendant's motion which was to dismiss the first cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7).

Contrary to the Supreme Court's determination, however, the plaintiff's second cause of action, which alleged breach of contract and sought to recover $5,875 in damages, representing the amount he had paid to the defendant, based on, inter alia, overbilling, was not necessarily duplicative of the first cause of action (see O'Connor v Blodnick, Abramowitz & Blodnick, 295 AD2d 586, 587). Moreover, while the court concluded that the plaintiff could seek these damages as a counterclaim in the separate action commenced by the defendant (see Molinoff v Tanenbaum, _____ AD3d _____ [decided herewith]), at the time the order appealed from was issued, that action had been dismissed. Accordingly, we modify the order by deleting the provision thereof granting that branch of the defendant's motion which was to dismiss the second cause of action, which was to recover $5,875 in damages for breach of contract, and substituting therefor a provision denying that branch of the motion."

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