In legal settings, a recurrent theme is how some litigants move from a successful position to a losing position, often by overplaying their hands.  Here, wife obtained physical custody of the child, which seemed to be an important outcome for her, only to end up loosing custody and owing six-figure legal fees to the husband.  Was it the attorney’s fault?

Knox v Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP  2018 NY Slip Op 09030 [168 AD3d 70]  December 27, 2018  Singh, J.  Appellate Division, First Department holds for the attorneys.

“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.{**168 AD3d at 73}

On May 2, 2014, while plaintiff was represented by FBK, the parties entered into a stipulation of settlement. On May 2, 2014, in open court, the parties were allocuted on the record. They stated that they understood and were satisfied with the settlement and with their attorneys’ representation.

The settlement provided for joint legal custody of the child, who would primarily reside with plaintiff. Plaintiff was required to move back to Manhattan “no later than September 1, 2014.” This obligation was deemed a “material term” of the settlement, and plaintiff agreed to pay any fees incurred in enforcing this term. The husband was required to pay FBK’s legal fees in the sum of $20,000 on plaintiff’s behalf. Plaintiff was otherwise “solely responsible for all legal and professional fees” incurred in connection with the matrimonial action.”

“Plaintiff’s complaint should be dismissed in its entirety against AMS. We agree that Supreme Court properly dismissed the claim against FBK.

[1] 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]).{**168 AD3d at 75}

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 [*4]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.”