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Posts Tagged ‘legal malpractice’

Avoiding Legal Malpractice Tip: Don’t Sue Your Client For Fees

Posted on: June 17th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

Sometimes clients don’t pay their attorneys’ fees. Should the unpaid lawyer sue his or her client for owed legal fees? While the lawyer certainly has the right to file suit, a lawsuit against a client can trigger a cross-claim for legal malpractice or breach of fiduciary duty. If you don’t want a lawsuit with your client, it is better to not file a lawsuit against your client. If, however, you have no choice (e.g., the amount is significant and the client is ignoring your collection efforts), make sure you file it after the statute of limitations has run on a legal malpractice claim. In California, wait more than one-year after you ended your representation or performed any legal work for the now delinquent former client. Better yet, before you decide to bring a claim for fees, conduct an analysis of any tolling provisions in the legal malpractice statute, such as when the delinquent client knew or should have known of any facts that could support a malpractice claim, or when the delinquent client suffered an “actual injury.”

Some lawyers prefer the slightly less formal process of resolving fee disputes through fee arbitration available through county bar associations, or the State Bar.

Regardless of the forum, before bringing a claim for fees, whether in fee arbitration or in court, double check your insurance policy to verify that a cross-claim for legal malpractice is a covered claim. Lastly, ask yourself, is paying your deductible and possible higher insurance premiums in future years worth filing a fee claim? More often than not, the answer is “no.”

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.

Avoiding Legal Malpractice Tip: Document, Document, Document

Posted on: May 24th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

“Boy, I wish that was in writing!”

Having defended scores of attorneys over the years, more often than not, I wish my lawyer-client had either better documented his or her file, or memorialized a key conversation. It certainly helps defending legal malpractice claims when a pivotal issue is in writing as opposed to merely being oral.

While it is not possible to document every detail in a legal matter, having the mindset of documenting interactions with clients can reduce legal consequences should a client sue. A simple e-mail confirming a conversation, or a time entry stating the substance of a conversation can help in defending a legal malpractice claim. Letters work too, of course, but are more time-consuming. For a key strategy decision in a case, a quick “memo to file” in e-mail form works as well as something more formal. A lawyer’ mindset should be: something in writing is better than nothing in writing.

But writings are not only helpful in “defending” a claim. A contemporaneous writing on a key point or issue in a matter may be enough to dissuade the client from suing in the first place.

In sum: the lawyer who chooses to document a file, over not documenting, no matter how informal, will be in a better position in the event the client is later dissatisfied with the lawyer’s services.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

Is “But-For” Causation In California Legal Malpractice Cases In Jeopardy?

Posted on: September 18th, 2018

By: Gretchen Carner & Brett Safford

California attorneys sued for fraud and intentional torts, as opposed to negligent legal malpractice, may be subjected to a different causation standard after the California Court of Appeal’s recent opinion in Knutson v. Foster (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1075.  The opinion has caused somewhat of a stir.  “But-for” causation and the “case-within-the-case” analysis are concepts used in virtually every lawsuit by a former client against his or her attorney.  It is axiomatic that a plaintiff, to establish a claim against his or her former attorney, must show that but for the conduct of the attorney, plaintiff would have achieved a better result.

Knutson modifies the causation analysis for certain claims against attorneys. Knutson held that the “but-for” standard should not be used when an attorney is sued by his or her former client for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty. The Knutson court premised its reversal of the trial court on a supposed distinction between the “but-for” and substantial factor causation tests. In addition, the Knutson court appears to have abandoned the well-established “case-within-the-case analysis.”

In Knutson, Plaintiff Dagny Knutson filed a lawsuit against her former attorney Richard Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Knutson’s claims against Foster arose from his handling of her claim for breach of oral contract against USA Swimming.

Knutson, an internationally ranked swimmer in high school, committed to Auburn University on a full athletic scholarship.  She selected Auburn because Paul Yetter, one of its swimming coaches, was considered an expert in the individual medley, Knutson’s specialty event.  However, in March 2010, the head coach of USA Swimming Mark Schubert told Knutson that Yetter was leaving Auburn and advised her to swim professionally instead of attending Auburn or another university.  Schubert then orally promised her that she would receive training at USA Swimming’s “Center for Excellence” in Fullerton, California as well as room, board, tuition, and a stipend.  The agreement was to last through 2016—after the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Notably, the oral agreement did not include “performance markers,” which Knutson would have to meet to retain her benefits.  Knutson accepted the offer and hired a sports agent.  However, only a few months after moving to Fullerton, USA Swimming terminated Schubert’s employment.

At the suggestion of her agent, Knutson hired attorney Foster after she stopped receiving money from USA Swimming.  Yet, Foster did not disclose to Knutson his close personal ties with high-level persons in the aquatics industry or that he had well-established relationships USA Swimming and other swimming organizations.  Foster also did not disclose that he represented Schubert in 2006, or that following Schubert’s termination from USA Swimming in 2010, he refused to represent Schubert in a wrongful termination action because “he did not want to have a negative relationship with USA Swimming in the future.”

Foster, on behalf of his client, Knutson, ultimately reached a settlement with USA Swimming.  The settlement agreement provided tuition from January to December 2012, but between 2013 and 2016, all payments were contingent upon “perform markers,” i.e., Knutson maintaining a top 25 ranking in the world or a top three ranking in the United States.

After learning of Foster’s conflicts of interest, Knutson sued Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury found in favor of Knutson on both causes of action, but the trial court granted Foster’s motion for new trial on the grounds that Knudson “failed to adduce evidence of causation and that the jury’s award of damages was excessive.” The trial court also denied Foster’s motion on two other grounds.  Both Knutson and Foster filed notices of appeal.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erroneously applied the “but-for” test for causation instead of the “substantial factor” test.  The Court explained, “Here, the trial court recognized the different standards of causation between legal malpractice claims and fraud claims, but nevertheless erroneously applied the malpractice standard of causation to the fraudulent concealment claim.  Although the court referred to the substantial factor for causation, it used and applied the but for test.”  After identifying Foster’s alleged concealments and breaches of loyalty, the court then concluded that “[a] substantial factor in Knutson’s decision to enter into the settlement agreement was Foster’s fraudulent concealment of the foregoing facts” and breaches of his fiduciary “caused Knutson harm initially by failing to provide her with all the information needed to make an informed decision about entering into the settlement agreement with USA Swimming and failing to ensure that Knutson’s best interests were being protected by Foster during the negotiations.”

The Court’s analysis in Knutson is problematic because it blurs the relationship between the “but-for” test of causation applied in legal malpractice claims and the “substantial factor” test of causation applied in intentional tort claims.  The “but-for” test has long been the appropriate causation standard for legal malpractice claims.  As explained by the California Supreme Court in Viner v. Sweet (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1232, “In a litigation malpractice action, the plaintiff must establish that but for the alleged negligence of the defendant attorney, the plaintiff would have obtained a more favorable judgment or settlement in the action in which the malpractice allegedly occurred. The purpose of this requirement, which has been in use for more than 120 years, is to safeguard against speculative and conjectural claims.”  (Id. at p. 1241, emphasis added.)  “This method of presenting a legal malpractice lawsuit is commonly called a trial within a trial.” (Blanks v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 336, 357.)  The “substantial factor” test requires that the “the plaintiff to establish ‘a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it was more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in the result.’ ” (Lysick v. Walcom (1968) 258 Cal.App.2d 136, 153, emphasis added.)

Knutson is a significant case because it not only contains a confusing analysis of the distinction between “but-for” causation and “substantial factor” causation, but it could also be read to dispose of the “case-within-the-case” analysis for claims against an attorney for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Review by the California Supreme Court is warranted to address the confusion Knutson creates.  Until then, it should be argued that Knutson is an outlier case which can be distinguished on its specific facts.  We will be keeping a close eye on this one.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Gretchen Carner at [email protected] or Brett Safford at [email protected].

Continuing Fiduciary Relationship Does Not Always Toll the Statute of Limitations in California

Posted on: March 5th, 2018

By: Brett C. Safford

In Choi v. Sagemark Consulting, 18 Cal. App. 5th 308 (2017) (“Choi”), plaintiffs, husband and wife, filed a lawsuit in November 2010 alleging that defendants, their former financial advisors, offered negligent and fraudulent financial planning advice with respect a complex investment program involving life insurance and annuities under former section 412(i) of the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC section 412(i) Plan”).  Audited by the IRS in 2006, Plaintiffs alleged that defendants misrepresented the IRC section 412(i) Plan’s promised benefits as well as its risk of adverse IRS action and tax consequences.  The audit concluded in 2009, and plaintiffs were subject to significant penalties and tax liabilities caused by the IRC section 412(i) Plan.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs’ causes of action were barred by the applicable statutes of limitation.  Defendants introduced two communications to show that plaintiffs were aware the IRS had identified defects in the IRC section 412(i) Plan as of November 2006, and IRS penalties and damages would be accruing as of September 2007. Trial court granted summary judgment, finding that plaintiffs were on notice of the IRS penalties as of September 2007, and therefore, the two-year and three-year statutes of limitations applicable to plaintiffs’ causes of action expired prior to filing of the complaint in November 2010.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, rejecting plaintiffs’ arguments that (1) the September 2007 e-mail only put plaintiffs on notice that damages might occur in the future, and (2) the fiduciary or confidential relationship between plaintiffs and defendants, as their financial advisors, tolled the statute of limitations.  Applying the general “discovery rule,” the court concluded that the plaintiffs discovered or should have discovered defendants’ negligent advice as of the September 2007 e-mail because that e-mail indicated “‘legally cognizable damage’ in the form of IRS penalties.” Choi, 18 Cal. App. 5th at 330.  Despite uncertainty as to the monetary amount of the penalties, “‘the existence of appreciable actual injury does not depend on the plaintiff’s ability to attribute a qualifiable sum of money to consequential damages.’” Id. at 331.  The court further held that tolling did not apply, even though the fiduciary relationship between plaintiffs and defendants continued while they collectively challenged the IRS assessment, because “[d]elayed accrual due to the fiduciary relationship does not extend beyond the bounds of the discovery rule.” Id. at 334.  Therefore, the court “decline[d] to apply the tolling principles to a scenario in which the defendants had disclosed the facts necessary to support’ the plaintiff’s cause of action.” Id.

The Court of Appeal’s analysis in Choi is significant in the professional liability context for two reasons.  First, the court reaffirmed that the general “discovery rule,” i.e., the statute of limitations period begins to run when a plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the cause of action, is the default rule for when causes of action accrue in professional liability cases.  The Court rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to apply a differing accrual rule applicable only to accounting malpractice actions arising from negligent preparation of tax returns.  The court explained, “It may be that actual injury results from an accountant’s allegedly negligent preparation of tax returns only as determined by an IRS audit, but the same cannot be said for more wide-ranging categories of negligent tax-related or investment advice.” Choi, 18 Cal. App. 5th at 328.

Second, and more importantly, the appellate court declined to toll the statute of limitations even though plaintiffs and defendants maintained a fiduciary relationship while challenging the audit.  California recognizes that certain cases involving a fiduciary obligation will toll the statute of limitations.  For example, the statute of limitations in a legal malpractice action is tolled while “[t]he attorney continues to represent the plaintiff regarding the specific subject matter in which the alleged wrongful act or omission occurred.” Cal. Civ. Proc. Code, § 340.6, subd. (a)(2).  However, in Choi, the court held that the discovery rule is not displaced by delayed accrual due to a fiduciary relationship—at least in the financial advisor-client context.  The court reasoned that Plaintiffs were on inquiry notice of the facts constituting their injury as of September 2007, and their continuing relationship with defendants “did not prevent or delay [them] from discovering the wrongdoing beyond September 2007.” Choi, 18 Cal. App. 5th at 335.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Choi undermines the commonly asserted proposition that a continuing fiduciary relationship will toll the statute of limitations and reaffirms the importance of the “discovery rule.”  At least in professional liability cases involving financial advisors, plaintiffs cannot hide behind their fiduciary relationship with defendants to avoid a statute of limitations defense.  Rather, the central inquiry is when did plaintiffs discover their causes of action—regardless of whether the discovery occurred before or after the termination of the fiduciary relationship.  As such, the Choi decision provides valuable authority for professional liability defense attorneys, especially those representing financial advisors, in cases where the statute of limitations may offer a defense.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brett Safford at [email protected].

In Defending Legal Malpractice Suits in Georgia, When Subsequent Legal Counsel Was Retained Could Be Crucial

Posted on: November 30th, 2017

By: Jessica C. Samford

When dealing with a lawsuit alleging legal malpractice, one of the first lines of defense in Georgia is O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1, which requires that an expert affidavit be filed at the same time as the complaint. Not only does this statute require the affidavit to set forth specifically “at least one negligent act or omission claimed to exist and the factual basis for such claim” by a “competent” expert; it also comes with teeth, mandating dismissal for failure to state a claim under certain circumstances.  While much attention is given toward subsection (e) of the statute, which addresses attacking defects in the expert affidavit, this statute contains additional provisions that provide strong consequences if the situation calls for the application of subsections (b) and (f) as explained below.

First, subsection (b) allows a complaint to be filed without the expert affidavit but only if (i) the complaint alleges that the required affidavit could not be prepared “because of time constraints,” (ii) the complaint is instead accompanied by the filing of an affidavit by the filing attorney, attesting that they were hired less than 90 days before the expiration of the limitation period, and (iii) an expert affidavit is filed within 45 days. The statute then provides that the court is forbidden from extending the 45-day deadline for any reason without consent of all parties and that “the complaint shall be dismissed for failure to state a claim” for failure to timely file either affidavit.

Importantly, dismissal is also mandated under this subsection if it turns out the law firm of the attorney who filed the affidavit “or any attorney who appears on the pleadings” was actually retained more than 90 days before the end of the limitation period. Therefore, in addition to the typical statute of limitation defense considerations as to when the applicable limitation period (2, 4, or 6 years depending on the particular allegations) was triggered and would run out for each claim asserted in the complaint, a key consideration should also be when subsequent counsel was retained in order to evaluate the possibility of a mandatory dismissal under subsection (b).

Next, subsection (f) provides that as long as a motion to dismiss raising the failure to file any affidavit required by the statute is filed with the answer, the complaint cannot be refiled after the limitation period’s expiry, even if voluntarily dismissed as is often done in an attempt to cure a prior failure to timely file any of the above affidavits.  (It should be noted there is a narrow exception if the requisite affidavit actually existed at the time it was required to be filed but was not filed by mistake.)  So if the circumstances fall within the realm of subsection (b), moving to dismiss at the same time as the answer could add finality to this statutory defense.  For example, subsequent counsel may try to fall back on a voluntary dismissal to circumvent a defense meriting mandatory dismissal, perhaps because there is evidence they were hired before the 90-day period.  By operation of subsection (f), the action would be dismissed as time-barred even if refiled with the requisite affidavit(s) after the applicable statute of limitation period passed.

While this statute is not limited to legal malpractice and applies to other enumerated professions, the affirmative defenses provided therein could be critical to obtaining an early dismissal with prejudice of a legal malpractice suit filed in Georgia.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica C. Samford at [email protected].