Zi Kuo Zhang v Lau  2022 NY Slip Op 06287  Decided on November 9, 2022  Appellate Division, Second Department  is the story of escrow money gone astray.

“The plaintiffs commenced this action against the defendant Jay Lau and his law firm, the defendant Lau & Associates, P.C. (hereinafter together the Lau defendants), among others, asserting, as against the Lau defendants, causes of action to recover damages for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint alleged that the Lau defendants represented the plaintiffs in connection with the formation of Wong Real Estate Fund I, LLC (hereinafter WRE I), the receipt of investment funds to be held in escrow, and the disbursement of those funds.

According to the complaint, the purpose of WRE I was to purchase and develop certain property located on 41st Avenue in Flushing. However, the plaintiffs’ funds held in the Lau defendants’ escrow account were disbursed in connection with a different property, located on 77th Street in Elmhurst (hereinafter the 77th Street property), which was purchased by another client of the Lau defendants. The plaintiffs agreed to the disbursement but requested a security interest in the hotel on the 77th Street property. Neither WRE I nor the plaintiffs received any interest in the 77th Street property.”

“The existence of an attorney-client relationship is an essential element of a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice (see Lindsay v Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh [*2]Stanton & Romano LLP, 129 AD3d 790, 792). “An attorney-client relationship may exist in the absence of a retainer or fee” (Willoughby Rehabilitation & Health Care Ctr., LLC v Webster, 190 AD3d 887, 889). “In determining the existence of an attorney-client relationship, a court must look to the actions of the parties to ascertain the existence of such a relationship” (Wei Cheng Chang v Pi, 288 AD2d 378, 380). “[A] party’s unilateral belief does not confer upon him or her the status of client. Rather, to establish an attorney-client relationship, there must be an explicit undertaking to perform a specific task” (Willoughby Rehabilitation & Health Care Ctr., LLC v Webster, 190 AD3d at 889; see Volpe v Canfield, 237 AD2d 282, 283).

Here, in an affidavit properly submitted to amplify the allegations in the complaint (see Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 88), the plaintiff Jun Hong Zhang averred that Lau met with the individual plaintiffs to form WRE I and orally informed them that he was representing them, instructed them to wire funds to his escrow account, committed to certain conditions of disbursement of those funds, and advised that he would continue to represent them on matters related to the property to be acquired by WRE I. Contrary to the Lau defendants’ contention, assuming these allegations to be true and affording the plaintiffs the benefit of every possible favorable inference (see J.P. Morgan Sec. Inc. v Vigilant Ins. Co., 21 NY3d 324, 334), they sufficiently alleged the existence of an attorney-client relationship (see Ripa v Petrosyants, 203 AD3d 770; Blank v Petrosyants, 203 AD3d 685Mawere v Landau, 130 AD3d 986, 990).

Further, since legal malpractice actions are not subject to special pleading requirements, “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” (Shaya B. Pac., LLC v Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP, 38 AD3d 34, 39; see Fitzsimmons v Pryor Cashman LLP, 93 AD3d 497, 498). “Rather, a legal malpractice defendant seeking dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) must tender documentary evidence conclusively establishing that the scope of its representation did not include matters relating to the alleged malpractice” (Shaya B. Pac., LLC v Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP, 38 AD3d at 39 [emphasis omitted]). Here, the Lau defendants failed to submit such documentary evidence.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly denied dismissal of the legal malpractice cause of action.

The Supreme Court also properly denied dismissal of the breach of fidiciary duty cause of action as duplicative of the legal malpractice cause of action. “An attorney holding funds in escrow owes a fiduciary duty to anyone with a beneficial interest in the trust” (Baquerizo v Monasterio, 90 AD3d 587, 587 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Levit v Allstate Ins. Co., 308 AD2d 475, 477; Takayama v Schaefer, 240 AD2d 21, 25). An escrow agent has a duty not to deliver the escrow funds to anyone except upon strict compliance with the conditions imposed (see Sasidharan v Piverger, 145 AD3d 814, 815; Baquerizo v Monasterio, 90 AD3d at 587; Matter of Ginzburg, 89 AD3d 938, 941). Here, the complaint sufficiently pleaded the existence of an oral escrow agreement (see Gargano v Morey, 165 AD3d 889, 891), invoking fiduciary duties even in the absence of an attorney-client relationship. Therefore, as the court correctly determined, the breach of fiduciary duty cause of action was properly pleaded in the alternative, in the event that it is ultimately determined that no attorney-client relationship existed or that the Lau defendants’ conduct related to the escrow funds was not within the scope of any such relationship.”

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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.