Clients rightfully expect the retainer lawyer to engage zealously on their behalf. What are the limits of such representation? How does the lawfirm correctly limit its obligations to the client. It starts by following the rules for a retainer agreement or a letter of engagement set forth in 22 NYCRR § 1215.
Attallah v Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, LLP 2019 NY Slip Op 00583 Decided on January 30, 2019 Appellate Division, Second Department describes how the letter might be written.
“In 2011, the defendant agreed to assist the plaintiff on a pro bono basis, in a very limited fashion, regarding the plaintiff’s expulsion in 2010 from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. To that end, the parties executed a letter of engagement dated July 7, 2011. The letter of engagement provided, in relevant part, that: “Our services will include all activities necessary and appropriate in our judgment to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration of your dismissal from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (the College’). This engagement does not, however, encompass any form of litigation or, to the extent ethically prohibited in this circumstance, the threat of litigation, to resolve this matter. This engagement will end upon your re-admittance to the College or upon a determination by the attorneys working on this matter that no non-litigation mechanisms are available to assist you. The scope of the engagement may not be expanded orally or by conduct; it may only be expanded by a writing signed by our Director of Public Service.”
Despite the defendant’s non-litigation efforts, the College refused to reconsider the plaintiff’s dismissal. Thereafter, the plaintiff commenced this action against the defendant to recover damages for breach of fiduciary duty, legal malpractice, and violations of Executive Law § 296, the New York Administrative Code, and the New York Corrections Law. The defendant moved pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint. The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion, and the plaintiff appeals.”
“We agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint. Contrary to the plaintiff’s contention, according to the parties’ undisputed letter of engagement, the defendant did not promise to negotiate administrative reconsideration on the plaintiff’s behalf but, rather, that it would “investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration of your dismissal from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.” The letter of engagement conclusively demonstrated that there was no promise to negotiate. There was only a promise to investigate and consider whether there were any options possibly available to urge the school to reconsider the plaintiff’s expulsion. Anything else, including the defendant’s failure to commence litigation against the school and the defendant’s alleged rendering of legal advice regarding the efficacy of the plaintiff’s commencing a defamation action against others, was outside the scope of the letter of engagement.
An attorney may not be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer (see AmBase Corp. v Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 NY3d 428). Therefore, since the defendant’s alleged failure to negotiate with the school, its alleged failure to commence litigation against the school, and its alleged failure to properly advise the plaintiff on the efficacy of a defamation action against nonschool parties fell outside the scope of the parties’ letter of engagement, dismissal of the cause of action alleging legal malpractice was warranted, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), on documentary evidence grounds.”