Leak v RBI Assoc., Ltd  2020 NY Slip Op 50072(U) Decided on January 14, 2020 Supreme Court, Kings County Fisher, J. is the story of cupidity, stupidity and criminality.  The attorneys, however, are not held liable.

“In this action plaintiff Ernest Leak alleges causes of action primarily premised on negligence arising out of defendants’ actions regarding a loan fraudulently obtained by nonparty Salvatore Lauria in plaintiff’s name. According to plaintiff’s deposition testimony and the amended verified complaint, plaintiff, who was the owner of neighboring houses located at 212 and 214 Skillman Street in Brooklyn, contacted defendant Consumer Management Services, Inc., (Consumer) in the fall of 2010 about obtaining a reverse mortgage, but, upon learning how a reverse mortgage worked, decided he did not wish to obtain such a mortgage. Plaintiff alleged that, based on information obtained from Consumer, Lauria, who worked as a cold caller in an office operated by defendant RBI Associates, LTD, (RBI),[FN1] a mortgage broker, appeared at plaintiff’s property and tried to interest plaintiff in obtaining a reverse mortgage. Plaintiff, however, declined to proceed with a reverse mortgage, but, after meeting Lauria several times, expressed an interest in refinancing the mortgage encumbering 212 Skillman Street. Believing that Lauria would assist him in such a refinancing, plaintiff gave Lauria his driver’s license and Social Security card.

Rather than applying for a loan refinancing the mortgage on 212 Skillman Street, Lauria, through RBI, proceeded to use plaintiff’s information to apply for a reverse mortgage loan from nonparty Live Well Financial, Inc., (Live Well) that would encumber 214 Skillman Street. Plaintiff specifically denied giving Lauria permission to apply for a reverse mortgage loan, and added that he had no interest in obtaining any loan with respect to 214 Skillman Street, which had no encumbrances on it other than liens relating to unpaid taxes and unpaid parking tickets. Live Well ultimately approved the reverse mortgage loan, and defendant Rhodora Pacis, who processed loans for RBI, and who handled the processing of the reverse mortgage loan at issue with Live Well, arranged for Grover & Fensterstock to act as Live Well’s attorney and settlement agent for the loan closing.

The closing was scheduled for January 24, 2011, at RBI’s offices, but was set at a time David Fensterstock, one of Grover & Fensterstock’s partners, could not be present. Fensterstock, who asserted that he did not always attend closings for reverse mortgages because no funds are to be disbursed at closings for such loans, arranged for Rhodora Pacis, who was a notary, to witness the signatures at the closing. Plaintiff denied being present at the closing, but someone appeared at the closing with Lauria, and presented an original driver’s license and an original Social Security card in plaintiff’s name to Pacis and signed the reverse mortgage and note using plaintiff’s name.[FN2] Based on the testimony of plaintiff, Pacis, and Fensterstock, Fensterstock had no actual contact with plaintiff, whether by telephone or personal contact. Although Pacis, at her deposition, was never specifically asked if she knew about Lauria’s scheme, the entire tenor of Pacis’ testimony makes clear that she did not know about Lauria’s scheme, and was unaware that the person purporting to be Ernest Leak, with whom she spoke with by telephone during the loan application process and at the closing, was not the plaintiff.

Among other things, the loan closing instructions provided to Fensterstock by Live Well required that “[s]ettlement proceeds may not be wired to the borrower if the borrower’s bank account includes the name of any individuals who are not borrowers. In these situations, the proceeds must be mailed in the form of a check.” In his deposition testimony, Fensterstock asserted that, at or around the time of the closing, Pacis or another RBI employee provided him with a void check from Amalgamated in the name of “No Leak Plumbing.” Given the closing instructions, Fensterstock informed Pacis or another RBI employee, that the borrower was required to provide a void check that was solely in his name. Fensterstock thereafter received an Amalgamated check from Pacis, or the other RBI employee, that had no account name on it along with a letter purportedly signed by Ralph Scherillo, an Amalgamated assistant vice-president, indicating that Ernest Leak had a personal account with Amalgamated and was an [*2]authorized signatory on the account. Upon receiving this check and letter, Fensterstock asserted that he called Amalgamated and spoke with Ralph Scherillo, who told him that Ernest Leak was the sole signatory on the account. Based on these representations, Fensterstock, after paying the closing fees and costs paying off the liens relating to the parking tickets and unpaid taxes, wired the remainder of the loan proceeds into the account that purportedly belonged to Ernest Leak. Lauria, however, was also a signatory on the account, and he ended up transferring the loan proceeds out of the account for his own use.”

“With respect to the portion of Grover & Fensterstock’s motion addressed to the amended complaint, Grover & Fensterstock alleges that it did not owe a duty to plaintiff under the circumstances of this case. Grover & Fensterstock, which was acting as Live Well’s attorney, did not owe plaintiff a duty in that role, since, “[i]n New York, a third party, without privity, cannot maintain a claim against an attorney in professional negligence, ‘absent fraud, collusion, malicious acts or other special circumstances'” (Estate of Schneider v Finmann, 15 NY3d 306, 308-309 [2010], quoting Estate of Spivey v Pulley, 138 AD2d 563, 564 [2d Dept 1988]; Breen v Law Off. of Bruce A. Barket, P.C., 52 AD3d 635, 636 [2d Dept 2008]). As there is no evidence suggesting that Grover & Fensterstock was aware of or part of Lauria’s fraudulent scheme, none of the exceptions to the privity requirement are applicable here (see Mauro v Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 116 AD3d 930, 933 [2d Dept 2014]; Chemical Bank v Bowers, 228 AD2d 407, 408 [2d Dept 1996]; see also Hinnant v Carrington Mtge. Servs., LLC, 172 AD3d 827, 829 [2d Dept 2019]). Moreover, in view of the general rule that a lender, absent a special relationship with a borrower, does not owe a duty to verify the identity of an imposter who obtains a loan in a plaintiff’s name (see Landino v Bank of Am., 52 AD3d 571, 574-575 [2d Dept 2008]; Beckford v Northeastern Mtge. Inv. Corp., 262 AD2d 436, 436 [2d Dept 1999]; Polzer v TRW, Inc., 256 AD2d 248, 248 [1st Dept 1998]; Banque Nationale de Paris v 1567 Broadway Ownership Assocs., 214 AD2d 359, 360 [1st Dept 1995]; see also Sullivan v MERS, Inc., 139 AD3d 419, 420 [1st Dept 2016]; Burger v Singh, 28 AD3d 695, 697-698 [2d Dept 2006]), there is no basis for imposing such a duty on Grover & Fensterstock based on its acting as Live Well’s attorney (Chemical Bank v Bowers, 228 AD2d at 408).

Grover & Fensterstock, however, also acted as the settlement agent for Live Well. With respect to the disbursement of loan proceeds placed in its hands, a settlement agent acts as an escrow agent (see Mauro, 116 AD3d at 933; Cash v Titan Fin. Servs., Inc., 58 AD3d 785, 789 [2d Dept 2009]). “An escrow agent . . . becomes a trustee of anyone with a beneficial interest in the trust with the duty not to deliver the escrow to anyone except upon strict compliance with the conditions imposed. Thus, an escrow agent can be held liable for . . . breach of fiduciary duty as escrowee” (Takayama v Schaefer, 240 AD2d 21, 25 [1998] [internal quotation marks and [*4]citations omitted]).[FN4] “

“Without any connection to plaintiff, Grover & Fensterstock had no special relationship with plaintiff that would impose a duty on it to exercise due care with respect to protecting plaintiff from an imposter. Indeed, it would be anomalous to find that Grover & Fensterstock owed such a duty in the face of the above noted case law finding that a lender itself owes no such duty under like circumstances (Iglesias, 206 Md App at 660, 51 A3d at 72; see Landino, 52 AD3d at 574-575; Beckford, 262 AD2d at 436; Polzer, 256 AD2d at 248; Banque Nationale de [*5]Paris, 214 AD2d at 360; see also Sullivan, 139 AD3d at 420; Burger, 28 AD3d at 697-698).[FN6] As Grover & Fensterstock has submitted evidentiary proof showing that it did not owe a duty to plaintiff arising out of plaintiff being the beneficiary of the funds being disbursed or owe a duty to plaintiff based on a special relationship, Grover & Fensterstock has demonstrated its prima facie entitlement to dismissal of any claim based on negligence or the violation of a fiduciary duty arising out of its role as settlement agent (see M.E.W.N., Inc., 78 AD2d at 637; Iglesias, 206 Md App at 659-660, 51 A3d at 71-72; see also Saul v Cahan, 153 AD3d 947, 949 [2d Dept 2017]; Palmetto Partners, L.P. v AJW Qualified Partners, LLC, 83 AD3d 804, 807 [2d Dept 2011])”

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Andrew Lavoott Bluestone

Andrew Lavoott Bluestone has been an attorney for 40 years, with a career that spans criminal prosecution, civil litigation and appellate litigation. Mr. Bluestone became an Assistant District Attorney in Kings County in 1978, entered private practice in 1984 and in 1989 opened…

Andrew Lavoott Bluestone has been an attorney for 40 years, with a career that spans criminal prosecution, civil litigation and appellate litigation. Mr. Bluestone became an Assistant District Attorney in Kings County in 1978, entered private practice in 1984 and in 1989 opened his private law office and took his first legal malpractice case.

Since 1989, Bluestone has become a leader in the New York Plaintiff’s Legal Malpractice bar, handling a wide array of plaintiff’s legal malpractice cases arising from catastrophic personal injury, contracts, patents, commercial litigation, securities, matrimonial and custody issues, medical malpractice, insurance, product liability, real estate, landlord-tenant, foreclosures and has defended attorneys in a limited number of legal malpractice cases.

Bluestone also took an academic role in field, publishing the New York Attorney Malpractice Report from 2002-2004.  He started the “New York Attorney Malpractice Blog” in 2004, where he has published more than 4500 entries.

Mr. Bluestone has written 38 scholarly peer-reviewed articles concerning legal malpractice, many in the Outside Counsel column of the New York Law Journal. He has appeared as an Expert witness in multiple legal malpractice litigations.

Mr. Bluestone is an adjunct professor of law at St. John’s University College of Law, teaching Legal Malpractice.  Mr. Bluestone has argued legal malpractice cases in the Second Circuit, in the New York State Court of Appeals, each of the four New York Appellate Divisions, in all four of  the U.S. District Courts of New York and in Supreme Courts all over the state.  He has also been admitted pro haec vice in the states of Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida and was formally admitted to the US District Court of Connecticut and to its Bankruptcy Court all for legal malpractice matters. He has been retained by U.S. Trustees in legal malpractice cases from Bankruptcy Courts, and has represented municipalities, insurance companies, hedge funds, communications companies and international manufacturing firms. Mr. Bluestone regularly lectures in CLEs on legal malpractice.

Based upon his professional experience Bluestone was named a Diplomate and was Board Certified by the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys in 2008 in Legal Malpractice. He remains Board Certified.  He was admitted to The Best Lawyers in America from 2012-2019.  He has been featured in Who’s Who in Law since 1993.

In the last years, Mr. Bluestone has been featured for two particularly noteworthy legal malpractice cases.  The first was a settlement of an $11.9 million dollar default legal malpractice case of Yeo v. Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman which was reported in the NYLJ on August 15, 2016. Most recently, Mr. Bluestone obtained a rare plaintiff’s verdict in a legal malpractice case on behalf of the City of White Plains v. Joseph Maria, reported in the NYLJ on February 14, 2017. It was the sole legal malpractice jury verdict in the State of New York for 2017.

Bluestone has been at the forefront of the development of legal malpractice principles and has contributed case law decisions, writing and lecturing which have been recognized by his peers.  He is regularly mentioned in academic writing, and his past cases are often cited in current legal malpractice decisions. He is recognized for his ample writings on Judiciary Law § 487, a 850 year old statute deriving from England which relates to attorney deceit.