Salus v Berke 2023 NY Slip Op 06183 Decided on November 30, 2023 Appellate Division, Third Department is a case on the correct application of Judiciary Law 487 claims that an attorney took too much of a fee in a contingent representation.

“Plaintiff Gregory J. Salus is the beneficiary of the residuary clause of the will of his mother (hereinafter decedent), and plaintiff Robert Russo is the executor of the estates of decedent and her husband. Salus hired defendants to represent him in two matters to settle the estates of decedent and her husband. The retainer agreement provided that defendants would receive one third of “any recovery by suit, settlement or otherwise” stemming from their representation of Salus in the matters regarding the estates. Defendants represented Salus in negotiations between Russo and Salus’ stepsisters to settle a disagreement over the allocation of an award received from decedent’s husband’s medical malpractice settlement. The negotiations resulted in Salus directly receiving $370,000 as well as $100,000 as the beneficiary of the residuary of decedent’s estate. As such, defendants included this $100,000 — in addition to the $370,000 — when calculating their legal fee.”

“In support of their motion, defendants submitted plaintiffs’ complaint, attached to which, as relevant here, is decedent’s will, a January 2020 amended decree from the Kings County Surrogate’s Court, the retainer agreement between Salus and defendants and a March 2020 settlement agreement. The January 2020 amended decree, which predates defendants’ representation of Salus, demonstrates that as part of the settlement of a medical malpractice/wrongful death action on behalf of decedent’s husband, decedent’s estate was to be paid $100,000 for decedent’s distributive share. Decedent’s will provides, in relevant part, that the proceeds that resulted from the medical malpractice claim were to be distributed to Salus’ stepsisters and that any residuary property be distributed to Salus. Thus, under the January 2020 amended decree, Salus would not receive anything from decedent’s husband’s medical malpractice/wrongful death action. The retainer agreement, signed in February 2020, specifies that defendants’ representation of Salus was for legal services constituting intervention and representation in “two pending matters in Surrogates Court, Kings County concerning” decedent’s estate and the estate of decedent’s husband. The agreement, which was attached to the complaint, provided that the legal fee would be computed at “33⅓% . . . of any recovery by suit, settlement or otherwise.” Finally, the March 2020 settlement agreement specifies that its purpose was to compromise the cause of action for wrongful death of decedent’s husband and to settle the accounts of decedent’s husband’s estate as well as decedent’s estate. This settlement agreement provided that, in relevant part, Salus’ stepsisters “waive all of their rights to any assets or any portion of the assets of the estate of [decedent].” Because of this waiver, $100,000 of the medical malpractice/wrongful death settlement which would have previously been distributed to Salus’ stepsisters would instead ultimately fall to the residuary of decedent’s estate, of which Salus was the sole beneficiary. Under the settlement agreement, Salus was also to receive $370,000 directly. Defendants calculated their legal fees from the sum total of these amounts, $470,000.

Although Supreme Court was correct that plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded the breach of contract cause of action, it erred by not considering defendants’ proffer, specifically, the retainer agreement, which conclusively establishes a defense as a matter of law. Indeed, the language in the retainer agreement is clear that defendants’ legal fee would be computed at “33⅓% . . . of any recovery by suit, settlement or otherwise.” By their involvement in the March 2020 settlement, Salus was awarded not only $370,000, but also the $100,000 that, prior to defendants’ representation of Salus, would have been distributed to Salus’ [*3]stepsisters. As such, defendants submitted undisputed documentary evidence that conclusively establishes a defense as a matter of law (see Matter of Lewis v Dagostino, 199 AD3d at 1222-1223; Jenkins v Jenkins, 145 AD3d 1231, 1235-1236 [3d Dept 2016]). In light of this determination, plaintiffs’ fifth cause of action alleging a violation under Judiciary Law § 487 must also be dismissed inasmuch as the documentary evidence establishes that defendants were entitled to the full amount received under the retainer agreement. Accordingly, defendants’ proffer conclusively establishes that they did not “intentionally deceive[ ] the court or a party during the pendency of a judicial proceeding” (A.M.P. v Benjamin, 201 AD3d 50, 57 [3d Dept 2021] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Judiciary Law § 487 [1]).”

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
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.