As in all settings, attorney or legal malpractice can be a defense to a fee claim by that attorney.  In Matter of Hart,  2022 NY Slip Op 22018,  Decided on January 12, 2022, Surrogate’s Court, Rockland County, Judge Cornell sets forth some of the rules.

“SCPA § 2110 authorizes the Court to fix and determine the compensation of an attorney at any time during the administration of the estate. SCPA § 2110(2) directs that the proceeding shall be instituted by petition of, inter alia, an attorney who has rendered services to the estate. The Uniform Rules for Surrogate’s Court require that an attorney file an affidavit of services in any proceeding to determine attorney’s fees. See 22 NYCRR § 207.45(a). The Court bears the ultimate responsibility for approving legal fees that are charged to an estate and has the discretion to determine what constitutes reasonable compensation for legal services rendered in the course of the administration of an estate. See Matter of Stortecky v. Mazzone, 85 NY2d 518 (1995); Matter of Vitole, 215 AD2d 765 (2d Dept. 1995); Matter of Verplanck, 151 AD2d 767, 767 (2d Dept. 1989) (surrogate “bears the ultimate responsibility to decide,” the reasonableness of compensation for legal services rendered to an estate); SCPA § 2110(3) (allowing Court to [*5]direct attorney to refund fees in excess of fair value of services rendered).

This power of the Surrogate to set fees is superior to the parties’ consent to a requested fee. See Stortecky, 85 NY2d at 526 (“[T]he Surrogate had the authority to inquire into the reasonableness of counsel’s fee even though agreed upon by the executor and assented to by the beneficiaries.”). The Court is not bound by the terms of a retainer agreement. See Matter of Williams, 168 AD3d 753, 753 (2d Dept. 2019) (“the Surrogate bears the ultimate responsibility of deciding what constitutes a reasonable legal fee, regardless of the existence of a retainer agreement”); In re Guattery, 278 AD2d 738 (3d Dept. 2000) (absence of written retainer agreement did not prevent Surrogate from fixing attorney’s fees); Estate of Paula M. Venezia, 2008 NY Misc. LEXIS 6644, 240 N.Y.L.J. 77 (Surr. Ct. Kings Co. 2008) (citing Matter of Schanzar, 7 AD2d 275 (1st Dept. 1959)).

The Surrogate also has the jurisdiction to determine attorney malpractice issues in a SCPA § 2110 proceeding to fix attorney’s fees. See In re Estate of Tarka, 293 AD2d 396, 396 (1st Dept. 2002) (“The court’s jurisdiction extended to . . . allegations of malpractice inasmuch as such claims allegedly arose in connection with the administration of the estate.”); Haskel & Lancaster, 2001 NYLJ LEXIS 160, NYLJ, Jan. 5, 2001 at Pg. 2, (col. 6) (Surr. Ct. Nassau Co. 2001) (Radigan, J.).”

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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.