Tax Shelters, Fraud and Legal Malpractice

Heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune decided that dividends and distributions were not sufficient, and entered into a tax shelter arrangement.  Naturally, it was disastrous, and ended in litigation.  In Johnson v Rose  2014 NY Slip Op 30262(U)  January 23, 2014  Sup Ct, NY County
Docket Number: 652075/2011  Judge: Lawrence K. Marks  we see how the Proskauer Rose LLP law firm engineered a big mess.  Today we will deal with the question of whether a fraud claim can exists side-by-side with a legal malpractice claim.

"Plaintiffs John Seward Johnson, Jr. ("Johnson") and his wife Joyce H. Johnson are Johnson & Johnson, Inc. stockholders who, along with other close affiliates and related entities, were clients of defendants at certain times relevant to the complaint. Through their attorney-client relationship with Johnson, defendants were aware of material aspects of plaintiffs' financial affairs, including plaintiffs' ownership of substantial amounts of Johnson & Johnson stock. Defendants approached Johnson (through Matthews) to offer him the opportunity to enter into a tax avoidance transaction with another Proskauer client, nonparty Diversified Group, Inc. ("Diversified"), which was in the business of selling tax planning strategies to high income parties. Defendants told Johnson that the transaction would allow plaintiffs to sell a large block of Johnson & Johnson stock in a manner that would minimize the payment of capital gains taxes. Johnson was realizing significant dividends on the stock up to that time, and had no plans to sell the stock before defendants approached him with the idea."

"Defendants seek to dismiss plaintiffs' first cause of action as duplicative of the legal malpractice claim. It is well-settled that failure to disclose one's own malpractice, standing alone, does not give rise to a fraud claim separate from the customary malpractice action. See, e.g., Weiss v. Manfredi, 83 N.Y.2d 974, 977 (1994); Baystone Equities, Inc. v. Handel-Harbour, 27 A.D.3d 231, 231 (1st Dep 't 2006); Roswick v. Mount Sinai Med. Ctr., 22 A.D.3d 409, 410 (1st Dep't 2005). Thus, a fraud claim asserted in connection with a claim for legal malpractice "is sustainable only to the extent that it is premised upon one or more affirmative, intentional misrepresentations -- that is, something more egregious than mere concealment or failure to disclose [one's] own malpractice." White of Lake George v. Bell, 251 A.D.2d 777, 778 (3d Dep't 1998) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); accord Carl v. Cohen, 55 A.D.3d 478, 478-79 (1st Dep't 2008) (fraud claim may be dismissed as duplicative of a malpractice claim if it is '"not based on an allegation of independent, intentionally
tortious' conduct" and "fail[s] to allege 'separate and distinct' damages"); Atton v. Bier, 12 A.D.3d 240, 241-42 (1st Dep't 2004) (suggesting that an alleged failure to disclose one's own "general incompetence" is, in effect, "founded upon the same underlying allegations as the malpractice claim and seek essentially the same relief'). Mere allegations that defendants "furnished erroneous legal advice and neglected to take appropriate steps to safeguard [plaintiffs'] interests" do not suffice. White of Lake George, 251 A.D.2d at 778. However, not every claim for fraud is duplicative of a professional malpractice claim, even when both are asserted in the same action. For example, it is proper to deny a motion to dismiss a fraud claim as duplicative of a legal malpractice claim where "the fraud cause of action was based upon tortious conduct independent of the alleged malpractice, i.e., an alleged misrepresentation as to the eligibility of the defendant
[attorney] to practice law in the State of Florida, and the plaintiffs alleged that damages flowed from this conduct." Rupolo v. Fish, 87 A.D.3d 684, 685-86 (2d Dep't 2011); see also Burke, Albright, Harter & Rzepka, LLP v. Sills, 83 A.D.3d 1413, 1414 (4th Dep't 2011) (fraud counterclaim not duplicative of legal malpractice counterclaim where "[t]he proposed counterclaims are based on allegations that plaintiffs intended to deceive decedent, whereas the 'legal malpractice  counterclaim] is based on negligent conduct"'); Dischiavi v. Calli, 68 A.D.3d 1691, 1693 (4th Dep't 2009) (fraud claims not duplicative of legal malpractice claims where "plaintiffs have alleged that the fraud caused additional damages, separate and distinct from those generated by the alleged malpractice")"

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