Legal malpractice cases frequently revolve around real estate, and almost as frequently around intra-sibling disputes. Wong v Yeung-Ha 2020 NY Slip Op 31832(U) June 11, 2020
Supreme Court, Kings County Docket Number: 505276/18, Judge: Karen B. Rothenberg hits both issues when a $14 Million estate consisting of Brooklyn and Hong Kong properties devolves into a family fight over the proceeds.
“On March 15, 2018, Angie commenced this action against attorney Yeung-Ha, the G&Y Law Firm, her mother, Esther Mak Wong (Esther), individually and as Trustee of the Esther Mak Wong Revocable Trust and the Esther Mak Wong Revocable Trust II (the Trusts), her sister, Wendy Wong Hoi Ying a/k/a Wendy Wong (Wendy), and her brothers, Alan Wong Chi Hang a/k/a Alan C.H. Wong (Alan) and Michael Wong Kin Hang a/k/a Michael K.H. Wong (Michael).”
“The complaint alleges that Angie’s father, Bill Wong a/k/a Bill Wai Wo Wong (Bill), died on September 7, 2014, “leaving a large estate . . .” (complaint at ¶ 10). Bill allegedly “left a will devising, in relevant part, one half of all of [his] tangible personal property (including all insurance policies pertaining thereto) to Esther, with the other half to be divided equally (one eighth each) among Angie, Alan, Michael, and Wendy” (id. at ¶ 12). Bill’s will allegedly “devised one half of [his] residual estate to Esther, and the other half to be divided equally among Angie, Alan, Michael, and Wendy, so that each would receive an eighth of [his] residual estate” (id. at ¶ 13). Angie was allegedly named Executor of her father’s will (id. at ¶ 14).
The complaint alleges, upon information and belief, that “in or about July 2014 Michael and Alan met with Yeung-Ha and G&Y and then or thereafter Michael and Alan decided [that] Yeung-Ha and H&Y should do legal work for Bill’s estate” (id. at ¶ 15). When Bill died, Michael allegedly “contacted Angie and suggested [that] she retain YeungHa and G&Y as her attorneys to represent her in the probate of Bill’s estate” (id. at ¶ 16). On September 23, 2014, Angie and Esther allegedly executed a written retainer agreement (retainer agreement) hiring attorney Yeung-Ha’s law firm, the G&Y Law Firm, to do legal work regarding Bill’s estate (id. at ¶ 17).
Yeung-Ha allegedly advised Angie that “the size of Bill’s estate subjected it to the federal and estate tax, and that the portion of the estate available for distribution to Bill’s heirs would be reduced by at least five million dollars if something was not done to reduce the potential estate tax liability” (id. at ¶ 18). Yeung-Ha also allegedly advised Angie that the estate tax could be reduced if the family implemented the following estate plan: (1) Angie, Alan, Michael and Wendy would renounce their inheritances, pursuant to EPTL § 2-1.11; (2) Angie would renounce her appointment as Executor of Bill’s estate; (3) Bill’s estate would pass to Esther through intestacy; and (4) Esther would establish multiple limited liability companies (LLCs) and grantor retained annuity trusts (GRATS) to hold the properties devised by Bill’s estate, and pay Angie, Alan, Michael and Wendy the income from those properties (id. at ¶ 19). Esther, Michael, Alan and Wendy allegedly agreed to go forward with Yeung-Ha’s proposed estate plan (id. at ¶ 21). Angie, based on her family’s encouragement, allegedly “agreed to the renunciations and to the appointment of Esther as administrator . . . of the estate” (id. at ¶ 24). ”
“Importantly, the Second Department has held that “a legal malpractice plaintiff need not, in order to assert a viable cause of action, specifically plead that the alleged malpractice
fell within the agreed scope of the defendant’s representation” because “[l]egal malpractice actions . . . are not subject to special pleading requirements” (Shaya B. Pacific, LLC, 38
AD3d at 39). “Rather, a legal malpractice defendant seeking dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) must tender documentary evidence conclusively establishing that the scope of
its representations did not include matters relating to the alleged malpractice” (id.). Here, the retainer agreement submitted in support of defendants’ dismissal motion
does not conclusively establish that the scope of defendants’ representation did not include matters relating to the alleged malpractice. Although the retainer agreement generally
lists certain “tasks that need to be performed in connection with the estate[,]” it also states that “[w]e are prepared to handle all work which is required to be performed or that you
request us to perform . . .” (emphasis added). In addition, while the retainer agreement initially states (on page one) that “I am writing in order to set forth an agreement between
us concerning our representation of Esther as proposed Executor of [Bill’s] estate[,]” it later states (on page two) that “we are undertaking joint representation . . .” of Angie and
Esther. Contrary to defendants’ contentions, the retainer agreement does not expressly limit the scope of that legal representation and does not expressly state that defendants’
legal representation of Angie is in her representative capacity only. Furthermore, Angie’s signature on the retainer agreement does not indicate that she executed it in her
representative capacity as Executor of Bill’s estate.
In any event, even absent privity, Angie may maintain a legal malpractice claim against Yeung-Ha and the G&Y Law Firm in her individual capacity, as a matter of law, since the complaint specifically alleges that those defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme to induce Angie to execute the Renunciation and thereby relinquish her inheritance. In addition, the complaint sufficiently alleges the elements of a legal malpractice claim. Accordingly, defendants’ motion to dismiss Angie’s second cause of action for legal malpractice is denied.”