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Archive for the ‘Professional Liability and MPL’ Category

Does a California Lawyer Have to Convey All Settlement Offers to the Client?

Posted on: July 31st, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

Not necessarily. Under Rule 1.4.1 of the ethics rules for California lawyers, in criminal matters, all terms and conditions of plea bargains or other dispositive offers, whether written or oral, have to be communicated to the client promptly. In non-criminal matters, all WRITTEN offers have to be promptly communicated. But what about a VERBAL offer in a non-criminal case? That’s a judgment call for the lawyer. If the lawyer believes the verbal offer is a “significant development,” then, yes, an oral offer should be promptly conveyed to the client. If, however, only a nuisance value oral offer is made, and the lawyer does not believe such offer is significant, then the lawyer cannot be disciplined for failing to communicate said offer. Of course, in the off chance the State Bar investigated the lawyer’s decision to not convey a verbal offer, the Bar would determine if the oral offer was significant or not.

That said, the best practice is to convey all offers, regardless of form, to the client, and to do so promptly.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Maintains a Contempt/Sanctions Proceeding is a ‘Civil Proceeding’ Contemplated by the Dragonetti Act

Posted on: July 29th, 2019

By: Courtney Mazzio

In Pennsylvania, the Dragonetti Act created a wrongful use of civil proceedings cause of action, when a person who takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another is subject to liability to the other for wrongful use of civil proceedings if: (1) he acts in a grossly negligent manner or without probable cause and primarily for a purpose other than that of securing the proper discovery, joinder of parties or adjudication of the claim in which the proceedings are based; and (2) the proceedings have terminated in favor of the person against whom they are brought. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351(a). Attorneys may be found liable under this cause of action.

Raynor v. D’Annunzio is a Dragonetti action brought by Plaintiff/appellant attorney,  stemming from contempt proceedings where sanctions were sought against her in an underlying civil suit. Raynor v. D’Annunzio, 2019 PA Super 72, 205 A.3d 1252. In the underlying action, a Philadelphia County Judge ultimately issued over $900,000 in sanctions against counsel for attempting to elicit certain testimony from her expert that was off-limits per a pre-trial in limine ruling. Plaintiff/appellant then appealed ruling to the Superior Court. There was a question over whether counsel had (1) intentionally violated the in limine ruling with her line of questioning of the expert, particularly where there was no  order instructing counsel to instruct her witness not to mention Plaintiff’s smoking history existed; and (2) whether there was evidence of record proving that counsel colluded with the expert in order to actively ignore the in limine ruling during questioning. On these bases, the Superior Court reversed the sanction orders of the trial court.

Plaintiff/appellant then brought this separate Dragonetti action against Plaintiff’s counsel in the underlying action, claiming counsel knew their requests for sanctions and contempt were unsupported by the facts and law, yet they pursued the action anyway in an effort to ruin counsel’s livelihood and professional life. Appellee filed Preliminary Objections, which resulted in the rare dismissal of a case with prejudice, in part on the basis that the phrase found in the Pennsylvania cause of action  “procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings” means the filing of a civil action, and does not include the filing of a post-trial motion. See id. at 1260. Plaintiff/appellant once again appealed the decision of the trial court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court found that a motion seeking a finding of contempt and a request for sanctions is, separate and distinct from post-trial motions alleging trial court error filed in the underlying lawsuit for the purposes of the Dragonetti Act. See id. at 1261-62. They determined it is essentially the same as the filing of a civil lawsuit. See id. Put another way, the Court found that seeking an adjudication of contempt and requesting sanctions constituted the procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings as contemplated by the Dragonetti Act. See id.  On this basis, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court sustaining the Preliminary Objections and remanded it to the trial court. It remains to be seen how the trial court will ultimately rule in this longstanding dispute riddled with contention.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Courtney Mazzio at [email protected].

Are Verbal Fee Splits Among California Law Firms Okay?

Posted on: July 18th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

The answer to this question is now “no.” When different law firms split a legal fee–say a contingency fee–verbal “gentlemen’s agreements” are not permitted under California’s new ethics rules. The old ethics rules allowed different law offices to verbally agree to a referral fee wherein the referring lawyer would get, say, 5% of any total recovery by another, unaffiliated lawyer. New Rule 1.5.1, now requires that the unaffiliated lawyers splitting or dividing such a fee have their own agreement in writing. Further, the client has to consent in writing to that fee split. The written disclosure to the client must disclose the terms of the fee split and the identity of the lawyers who are splitting the fee. As long as the total fee charged by all lawyers is not increased due to the agreed split, fee sharing among different law offices is permissible under California’s ethical rules.

The agreement among unaffiliated law offices need not be signed, however. An informal e-mail setting forth the terms of the fee split could suffice.

The lesson here is casual, oral arrangements among California law firms to split legal fees are no longer permitted under the ethical rules.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

In Attorney Malpractice Suit Alleging “Negligent Settlement,” Massachusetts Appeals Court Holds No Expert Testimony Is Needed to Show “Fair Settlement Value” of the Underlying Claim

Posted on: July 10th, 2019

By: Ben Dunlap

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently addressed the requirements for expert testimony in an attorney malpractice suit, concluding lack of an expert opinion on “fair settlement value” was not fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

Marston v. Orlando, 95 Mass. App. Ct. 526 (2019) arose from injuries sustained by a worker on an offshore light tower. The injured worker retained counsel to pursue a workers’ compensation claim and also federal law claims against his employer and other parties. His attorneys negotiated a $7,500 lump-sum workers’ compensation settlement and a $200,000 settlement of the federal claims.

Following the settlement, the injured worker’s conservator brought an attorney malpractice action against the attorneys, alleging the settlement was inadequate in light of the severe injuries sustained, and that the attorneys “pressured” their client to accept an inadequate settlement to “disguise” their negligent handling of the case. Among other issues, the plaintiff contended the attorneys took certain positions in the workers’ compensation case that may have precluded recovery in the federal claims.  The plaintiff proffered expert testimony regarding the requisite standard of care applicable to an attorney practicing in Massachusetts but no expert testimony on the issue of what a “fair settlement value” would have been in the underlying case.  The trial court dismissed the case on the eve of trial, ruling the plaintiff was required to show the settlement was “unreasonable” and failed to do so because he lacked expert testimony regarding the “fair settlement value” of the claim.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued, among other things, that the trial judge misapplied the law as to the requirement for expert testimony.  The Appeals Court, revisiting the standards set forth in Fishman v. Brooks, 396 Mass. 643 (1986), agreed with the plaintiff and vacated the trial court’s dismissal, concluding that “[t]he absence of an expert opinion on fair settlement value was not fatal to the conservator’s legal malpractice case.”

The Appeals Court explained there are two ways to establish attorney malpractice based on a “negligent settlement.” One method rests on proving the “case within the case.”  Using this method, the plaintiff must show first that the attorneys breached the standard of care in their settlement of the underlying claims, and second, that if the claims had not been settled, the client would have recovered more than he received in the negligently-obtained settlement.  As in most jurisdictions, Massachusetts law requires expert testimony to prove the attorneys breached the standard of care (except where a breach is “obvious”), but using the “case within the case” method, an expert is not needed to prove what a fair settlement would have been. Instead, a jury could determine what the plaintiff would have recovered in the absence of a settlement – with or without expert testimony.

The second method of proving attorney malpractice relies on the “fair settlement value” of the underlying case. To prevail using this method, a plaintiff shows that absent the attorney’s negligence, he would have obtained a more favorable settlement. The damages are the difference between the settlement obtained and what the fair settlement value would have been in the absence of any malpractice.  This method requires an expert to show what the fair settlement value would have been.

Because the plaintiff in Marston sought to prove malpractice using the first method – the “case within the case,” he was not required to present expert testimony to show the “fair settlement value.”

The Appeals Court’s decision brings into focus two distinct methods for proving an attorney malpractice case under Massachusetts law and clarifies the differing requirements for expert testimony with each method. It also highlights an issue that in many other jurisdictions is unsettled. Although most jurisdictions recognize some form of the “case within the case” method for proving an attorney malpractice claim, the treatment of the “fair settlement value” method varies widely. Some, like California, New Jersey, and New York, permit the use of the “fair settlement value” method but caution against damages that are too “speculative,” suggesting expert testimony may be needed establish the claim. Others, like Pennsylvania and Georgia, generally disfavor claims for “negligent settlement,” regardless of the theory pursued. Florida law permits recovery for “negligent settlement” but appears to favor the “case within the case” method of proof. The Marston case is a significant addition to this developing area of the law.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ben Dunlap at [email protected].

About Accounting Malpractice

Posted on: July 9th, 2019

By: Eric Martignetti

Today, Massachusetts’ highest court did away with an important defense for an accountant who faces a claim of accounting malpractice brought by a client who has committed fraud. In Chelsea Housing Authority v. Michael E. McLaughlin et al., the Supreme Judicial Court held that Mass. Gen. Laws c. 112, § 87A ¾ pre-empts the common law doctrine of in pari delcito. Accordingly, as the SJC held, “where a plaintiff sues an accountant for negligently failing to detect the fraudulent conduct of the plaintiff, the plaintiff may recover damages from the accountant, but only for the percentage of fault attributed to the accountant (as compared to the fault of all others whose fraudulent conduct contributed to causing the plaintiff’s damages).”

After a lengthy examination of the legislative history of § 87A ¾, the SJC concluded that “the Legislature sought to remedy… not only the potential unfairness to accountants of joint and several liability, but also the need to hold accountants accountable for negligently failing to detect and reveal financial fraud committed by their client and its officers.”

Before today’s decision, in pari delicto was a powerful defense because it generally prevented an accountant from being held liable for accounting malpractice where a client committed fraud and was at least “in equal fault” with the accountant. After today’s decision, however, the in pari delicto defense is no longer available to an accountant where a client has committed fraud.

Importantly, because § 87A ¾ applies to all individuals or firms licensed to practice pubic accountancy in Massachusetts, accountants performing any level of services—whether compilation, review, or audit—face potential liability where a client has committed fraud. Although an accountant’s liability is limited to “the percentage of [its] fault in contributing to the plaintiff’s damages,” its liability cannot be eliminated altogether by in pari delicto.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Eric Martignetti at [email protected].