Knox v Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP    2018 NY Slip Op 09030  Decided on December 27, 2018  Appellate Division, First Department  Singh, J. points up some recurring issues that take place in matrimonial-legal malpractice cases:  there are often multiple attorneys (6 or more in this case), there are many opportunities for the husband and wife to make their own agreements, the parties often take things into their own hands and bust agreements, and when the case settles, the settlement often takes many issues off the board.

“Plaintiff Jodi Knox brings this action against her former counsel, Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP and Karen Robarge (collectively, AMS) for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and violation of Judiciary Law § 487 in connection with a divorce action brought by her former husband, nonparty James McGinnis (the husband), in New York County Supreme Court (McGinnis v McGinnis). She alleges that her successor legal counsel, defendant Fredman Baken & Kosan, LLP (FBK), also committed legal malpractice.

Defendant AMS represented plaintiff from approximately February through October 2013. Defendant Robarge is the partner at AMS who was primarily responsible for plaintiff’s case. Defendant FBK represented plaintiff from January 2014 through June 2015.[FN1]

While represented by AMS, plaintiff repeatedly expressed her desire to move for a protective order against the husband. AMS ultimately made the application for a protective order as a cross motion to the husband’s motion to set a visitation schedule on May 3, 2013. The motion and cross motion were resolved by a temporary stipulation, dated May 7, 2013 (the temporary stipulation), which gave plaintiff and the couple’s infant daughter, born on November 6, 2012 exclusive occupancy of the couple’s apartment in Manhattan and set a schedule for visitation with the husband.

In July 2013, plaintiff sought to temporarily move from the Manhattan apartment to Connecticut for foot surgery. Despite defendant Robarge’s advice to the contrary, plaintiff, after apparently obtaining her husband’s consent, moved with the child to Greenwich, Connecticut.

On October 21, 2013, AMS filed an order to show cause to be relieved as counsel due to plaintiff’s lack of confidence in their advice. Before the order to show cause was heard, plaintiff voluntarily secured new counsel.”

“Turning first to plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action against AMS, she alleges that AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, resulting in her failure to receive an undetermined award to pay her attorneys. This claim fails because plaintiff’s various successor counsel had ample time and opportunity to make such a motion, and in fact one did (although it was purportedly abandoned) (see Davis v Cohen & Gresser, LLP, 160 AD3d 484, 487 [1st Dept 2018]).

Even assuming AMS was negligent in failing to move for attorneys’ fees, by agreeing as part of the settlement [FN2] to forgo any award of attorneys’ fees except for $20,000, plaintiff cannot show that but for AMS’s negligence she would not have sustained the loss (see generally Tydings v Greenfield, Stein & Senior, LLP, 43 AD3d 680, 682 [1st Dept 2007], affd 11 NY3d 195 [2008] [to establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must demonstrate that “but for” the attorney’s negligence, plaintiff would have prevailed in the matter in question; failure to demonstrate proximate cause mandates the dismissal of a legal malpractice action regardless of whether the attorney was negligent]); 180 Ludlow Dev. LLC v Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP, 165 AD3d 594, 595 [1st Dept 2018] [“While proximate cause is generally a question for the factfinder . . . it can, in appropriate circumstances, be determined as a matter of law”]).

Next, plaintiff claims that AMS was negligent in allegedly advising her that she was [*3]permitted to move to Connecticut, resulting in the loss of custody of the child. The damages plaintiff seeks are the attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with the husband’s motion to compel her return to New York and future legal fees she will have to expend to recover custody. Again, this claim fails because plaintiff’s alleged damages were not proximately caused by any advice given by AMS, but rather by her own subsequent failure to comply with the terms of the settlement.

Turning to the breach of fiduciary duty claim, plaintiff seeks damages for pain and mental suffering, the $132,000 plaintiff was required to pay the husband for his attorneys’ fees, the attorneys’ fees needed to recover custody of the child, and punitive damages. This claim and ensuing damages sought for the breach are duplicative of the malpractice cause of action (see Alphas v Smith, 147 AD3d 557, 558-559 [1st Dept 2017] [where the court found that the relief sought in the fiduciary duty claim was identical to the legal malpractice claim as it sought similar damages]).”