Why Can't This Client Prove the Losses?

Attorney fee suits lead to interesting further proceedings. An oft cited piece of advice at CLEs is that attorney fee suits invite legal malpractice counterclaims. Here is one. They do not always succeed. However, was it worth the $6000 fee case?

In Richard A. Kraslow, P.C. v LoGiudice ; 2011 NY Slip Op 50823(U) ; Appellate Term, Second Department. Attorney represented client in a divorce and spouse died during the proceedings. Client then participated in the Surrogate's court case, and alleges big losses there. "Plaintiff and defendant had executed a retainer agreement, dated January 28, 2002, which governed the legal services rendered during the matrimonial action. They did not execute another retainer agreement for the Surrogate's Court action. Plaintiff commenced this action to recover damages for breach of contract and unjust enrichment after defendant had failed to pay for the legal services which plaintiff had rendered in connection with the Surrogate's Court action.

Defendant answered and, in addition to interposing various affirmative defenses, asserted the following counterclaims: first, the matrimonial action and retainer agreement had terminated on April 15, 2002, upon the death of defendant's wife, whereupon the parties had failed to execute a subsequent agreement; second, plaintiff had failed to timely file a right of election against defendant's wife's estate, resulting in damages in the amount of $66,000; third, plaintiff had not challenged the validity of a waiver agreement whereby defendant had disclaimed his status as the sole beneficiary of his wife's pension benefits, resulting in damages in the amount of $109,000; fourth, plaintiff had improperly advised defendant to stop paying the mortgage on the marital residence, which had resulted in a foreclosure action and damages "in an amount of not
less than $100,000"; fifth, that plaintiff should refund the money that defendant had paid him under the retainer agreement in the amount of $5,090 because the retainer agreement was "legally [*2]deficien[t]"; sixth, plaintiff had been unjustly enriched in the amount of $5,090 because the retainer agreement was "legally deficient"; seventh, that plaintiff should refund the money defendant had paid him after the alleged termination of the retainer agreement in the amount of $6,950; eighth, plaintiff had been unjustly enriched in the amount of $6,950; and ninth, plaintiff was not entitled to damages for any legal services rendered to defendant after April 15, 2002.

Plaintiff moved for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the counterclaims in their entirety. The District Court denied the motion with respect to all the counterclaims except the fourth. Plaintiff appeals from so much of the order as denied the various branches of its motion.

Inasmuch as both the first and ninth counterclaims do not contain a demand for affirmative relief, the District Court should have granted the branches of plaintiff's motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss them.

With respect to the second counterclaim, defendant failed to rebut plaintiff's proof that defendant was unable to establish his legal malpractice action. To succeed on a motion for summary judgment dismissing a counterclaim for legal malpractice, a plaintiff "must demonstrate that the [defendant] is unable to prove at least one of the essential elements of its legal malpractice cause of action" (Boglia v Greenberg, 63 AD3d 973, 974 [2009]; see Kotzian v McCarthy, 36 AD3d 863 [2007]). In response, the defendant is required to show that the plaintiff "failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession and that the attorney's breach of this duty proximately caused [the defendant] to sustain actual and ascertainable damages" (Mueller v Fruchter, 71 AD3d 650 [2010] [internal citations omitted]).

Plaintiff submitted a sworn affidavit averring that he had reached a favorable tentative settlement with the estate of defendant's deceased wife in the amount of
$100,000. In response, defendant failed to proffer any evidence that he had sustained actual and ascertainable damages resulting from plaintiff's decision to pursue one strategy in the Surrogate's Court action rather than another (Collard & Roe, P.C. v Vlacancich, 6 Misc 3d 17, 18-19 [App Term, 9th & 10th Jud Dists 2004]). Consequently, the District Court should have dismissed the second counterclaim.

With respect to the third counterclaim, defendant failed to rebut plaintiff's proof that defendant did not establish that he had signed the waiver of pension benefits under mental duress. Likewise, defendant's fifth and sixth counterclaims have "no merit" because defendant failed to either rebut plaintiff's proof that the retainer agreement was legally sufficient or specify any legal theory upon which relief could potentially be granted (Ventura v Fischer, 21 Misc 3d 131[A], 2008 NY Slip Op 52124[U], *2 [App Term, 2d & 11th Jud Dists 2008]; see CPLR 3212 [b]). [*3]

Finally, the District Court should have dismissed the seventh and eighth counterclaims because plaintiff's alleged violation of 22 NYCRR 1215.1, in and of itself, is not a ground for the disgorgement or refund of already paid attorney's fees (see Jones v Wright, 16 Misc 3d 133[A], 2007 NY Slip Op 51494[U] [App Term, 9th & 10th Jud Dists 2007]; Constantine Cannon LLP v Parnes, 2010 NY Slip Op 31956[U], *16 [Sup Ct, NY County 2010]).

Accordingly, the order insofar as appealed from, is reversed and the branches of plaintiff's motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss defendant's first, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth counterclaims are granted. "

 

 

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