Settlements and Legal Malpractice

Potential clients often ask whether they should settle the underlying case and then sue their present attorney for legal malpractice, or sue before settling.  Aside from the "bird in the hand/bird in the bush" issue, and whether it is better to take something specific now, rather than waiting for the future potential, the rule in legal malpractice is that settlement of the underlying case is not necessarily the end of the legal malpractice case.

Angeles v Aronsky  2013 NY Slip Op 05955 [109 AD3d 720]  September 24, 2013
Appellate Division, First Department  is an example of the issue in the First Department.  There are similar cases in the Second Department, too.

Plaintiff Manuel Angeles commenced this legal malpractice and breach of contract action against defendant Jeffrey A. Aronsky alleging that defendant negligently represented plaintiff in his underlying premises liability action arising from an attack on plaintiff in the lobby of an apartment building. Plaintiff also asserts that defendant breached the retainer agreement.

On December 7, 2007, at approximately 3:15 p.m., plaintiff entered the front entrance of the apartment building where he lived and, immediately upon reaching the lobby, was hit in the jaw. Although there were no witnesses to the actual attack, a neighbor who was standing outside the building around the time of the incident saw three men run out the front entrance. Two of the men were holding baseball bats. The neighbor, who had lived in the building for about five years, did not recognize any of the men. Plaintiff also did not recognize the men, whom he observed briefly before he lost consciousness following the assault.

On the day of the incident, plaintiff admits that the door locked behind him when he left the building around 2:55 p.m. and that he had to unlock it with his key when he returned a short time later. On the side of the building there is a door to the laundry room, which is located in the basement. This door remains unlocked between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. From the laundry room, a person can access the lobby without a key by using the elevator.

Shortly after the attack, plaintiff retained defendant to represent him in a potential personal injury case. According to defendant, an investigator from his office initially interviewed plaintiff at the hospital. Defendant asserts that he later spoke with plaintiff over the phone to review the information plaintiff had given the investigator. Plaintiff told defendant that the front door was locking properly on the day he received his injuries and mentioned no other entrances. Defendant accepted plaintiff's statements concerning the security of the building, and did not send an investigator to inspect the premises or visit the premises himself. Also, he did not interview the superintendent. [*2]

Although a settlement agreement was reached with the owner of the building prior to the commencement of any personal injury action, plaintiff commenced a legal malpractice action against defendant, alleging, inter alia, that he negligently investigated plaintiff's premises liability claim. Defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint and the motion court denied the motion.

For a claim for legal malpractice to be successful, "a plaintiff must establish both that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession which results in actual damages to a plaintiff and that the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action 'but for' the attorney's negligence" (AmBase Corp. v Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 NY3d 428, 434 [2007] [citation omitted]). A client is not barred from a legal malpractice action where there is a signed "settlement of the underlying action, if it is alleged that the settlement of the action was effectively compelled by the mistakes of counsel" (Garnett v Fox, Horan & Camerini, LLP, 82 AD3d 435, 435 [1st Dept 2011] [internal quotation marks omitted], quoting Bernstein v Oppenheim & Co., 160 AD2d 428, 430 [1st Dept 1990])."

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