Rehabilitation Center: Arguing with a nursing home administrator is like wrestling with a pig in the mud: After a few minutes, you realize the pig likes it.

Woman with white hair and pink smock holding hands in front of face, illustrating article by Richard Klass about nursing homes and rehabilitation centers

She had to convalesce in a rehabilitation center for comprehensive (sub-acute) in-patient care following illness. Upon admission, the resident was presented with the facility’s admission agreement for her to sign. The agreement provided that, in exchange for payment through Medicaid, Medicare, insurance or direct pay, the facility would provide all of the patient’s basic and routine services, including lodging and boarding and professional nursing care.

The agreement specified that the resident anticipated paying the costs of care through her managed care organization (MCO) (which contracts through a network or group for the delivery of health care). However, the agreement left the section for private payment rates for daily charges blank.

Motion to Dismiss the Facility’s Case

Post-discharge, the rehabilitation facility brought an action against the former resident, alleging that she obligated herself to pay for the room, board, nursing and health care services but failed to made payment. To mount the best defense possible, the former resident retained Richard A. Klass, Esq., Your Court Street Lawyer, who immediately moved to dismiss the case.

In the Complaint, the facility alleged that it was a corporation duly organized and existing under and by virtue of the laws of the State of New York. Based upon a search of the New York State Department of State online records, there was no corporation with the plaintiff’s name registered to do business in New York State. Business Corporation Law § 301(a)(1) specifies that the name of a domestic or foreign corporation “shall contain the word ‘corporation’, ‘incorporated’ or ‘limited’, or an abbreviation of one of such words; or, in the case of a foreign corporation, it shall, for use in this state, add at the end of its name one of such words or an abbreviation thereof.” There was no such designation in its name in the Summons or Complaint. To the extent that the facility may have claimed it was suing under an assumed name, General Business Law § 130(1) provides that there are certain requirements to be met.

Consumer credit transaction

The pending motion to dismiss set up settlement discussions about the procedural and substantive defenses to the facility’s case. As to the procedural aspect, the next line of defense was to threaten dismissal of the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds.

The Summons failed to prominently display at the top the words “Consumer Credit Transaction.” CPLR 305(a) specifies that the Summons must have those words on the top where the court held that the debt on an obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the services which are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family or household purposes. In Jack Mailman & Leonard Flug DDS, PC v. Whaley, 2002 WL 31988623 [Civil Court, Richmond Co. 2002], the court held that medical debts were deemed consumer debts.

Residential Care Facilities – Residents’ Rights

Nursing facilities, including nursing homes and rehabilitation centers

Nursing facilities, including nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, that accept residents whose charges will be paid in whole or in part by Medicaid are governed by the federal Nursing Home Reform Act (42  USC §1396r) and federal and state regulations (42 CFR §483; and 10 NYCRR §415).

Through these enactments, there was the creation of a so-called residential care patient’s “Bill of Rights.” These “Rights” include the rights to freedom from abuse, mistreatment and neglect; privacy; accommodation for mental, physical, psychological and emotional needs; treatment with dignity; and being fully informed and participating in one’s care.[1]

Financial obligation rights

Among residents’ rights are those relating to financial obligations to the facility, including informing the resident of those services and items that the facility offers for which the resident may be charged. 10 NYCRR §415(h). These laws and regulations govern nursing facility admission agreements. See, Prospect Park Nursing Home v. Goutier, 824 NYS2d 770 [Civil Court, Kings Co. 2006].

The resident did not read or write in the English language. The admission agreement was not translated for her. The resident alleged that when she asked what she was signing, she was told that her MCO would be paying the costs, not her. The “Anticipated Payor” section indicated that an insurer would be paying. The “Private Payment” section (including costs per day) was left blank. The resident alleged that she was never informed of the rates or charges. It was claimed that the facility’s representatives engaged in wrongful conduct and misrepresentation concerning the execution of the agreement. See, Nerey v. Greenpoint Mortgage Funding, Inc., 144 AD3d 646 (2d Dept. 2016).

Rehabilitation Center

Quality of Life: The right to adequate and appropriate care

The regulations emphasize that a resident has the right to receive from the facility “the necessary care and services to attain or maintain the highest practicable physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being, consistent with the resident’s comprehensive assessment and plan of care.” 42 CFR §483.24.

The resident alleged she received inadequate care at the facility, including that she had to wait many hours for the bedpan to be changed; lack of bathing; unavailability of staff when needed and for necessary help and activities. In light of the vigorous defense advocated by Your Court Street Lawyer, the facility agreed to significantly reduce the bill for rehabilitation services and settle the case with the former resident on very favorable terms.

[1] https://www.aarp.org/home-garden/livable-communities/info-2001/the_1987_nursing_home_reform_act.html

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Scales of justice

Retainer agreements should set forth scope of lawyer’s representation.

Portus Singapore PTE LTD v Kenyon & Kenyon LLP, 449 F Supp 3d 402, 411-15 [SDNY 2020] serves as a reminder that the scope of the lawyer’s representation should be set forth in the retainer agreement. As the federal court held:

In order to demonstrate that a lawyer was negligent “a plaintiff must show that an attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession” and that “the attorney’s breach of this professional duty caused the plaintiff’s actual damages.” McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714, 718-19 (2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “What constitutes ordinary and reasonable skill and knowledge cannot be fixed with precision, but should be measured at the time of representation.” Darby & Darby, P.C. v. VSI Intern., Inc., 95 N.Y.2d 308, 716 N.Y.S.2d 378, 739 N.E.2d 744, 747 (2000). Generally, “ordinary and reasonable skill” is determined by looking to standards of legal practice in the State of New York. See, e.g.Sokol, 468 F. Supp. 2d at 637 (discussing New York law practice commentary). Moreover, “[a]n attorney may not be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer.” *412 Attallah v. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, LLP, 168 A.D.3d 1026, 93 N.Y.S.3d 353, 356 (2019).

In AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d 1033, 1035 (2007), following the liquidation of its parent company, the plaintiff corporation AmBase assumed primary liability for the parent corporation’s federal income taxes and secondary liability for all other liabilities. Following liquidation, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) found the parent company liable for six years’ worth of withholding taxes, which would be imputed to AmBase under the liquidation agreement. Id. AmBase retained Davis Polk “to represent [it] as agent for [the parent corporation] to resolve the tax issues currently before” the IRS. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Davis Polk then successfully challenged in the Tax Court the IRS’s determination that AmBase was liable. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1035. AmBase then turned around and sued Davis Polk for legal malpractice on the ground that Davis Polk had failed to advise AmBase that AmBase was only secondarily liable for payment of taxes. Id. AmBase alleged that although it ultimately prevailed in the Tax Court, Davis Polk’s negligence forced AmBase to maintain a multi-million-dollar loss on its books, thereby creating an appearance of insolvency that resulted in lost business opportunities. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1036.

The New York Court of Appeals noted that the plain language of the retainer agreement “indicates that Davis Polk was retained to litigate the amount of tax liability and not to determine whether the tax liability could be allocated to another entity.” Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Noting that “the issue whether plaintiff was primarily or secondarily liable for the subject tax liability was outside the scope of its representation,” the court held that the “defendants exercised the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession when they focused their efforts on the controversy between AmBase and the IRS – the subject of the retainer agreement – resulting in a most favorable outcome, which was publicly praised by AmBase principals.” Id.

Similarly, in Milbank, Tweed, the law firm agreed in its engagement letter to represent the plaintiff “to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration” of the plaintiff’s expulsion from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. 93 N.Y.S.3d at 355. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint that had alleged malpractice on the ground that Milbank, Tweed did not actually negotiate the plaintiff’s readmission to the school. Id. at 356. The court reasoned that an attorney cannot be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer and that negotiation with the school went beyond the stated scope of the agreement letter. Id.

Davis Polk and Milbank, Tweed stand for the proposition that the failure by a lawyer to take actions outside the scope of that lawyer’s representation of a client cannot form the basis of a legal malpractice suit.

This case is substantially similar to Davis Polk and Milbank, Tweed. The parties do not point to any formal retainer or contract that spelled out the engagement between Kenyon and Portus. Rather, the “scope” of the engagement between Portus and Kenyon was set out in the communications between Kenyon and Portus’s agent, Mr. Treloar. Mr. Treloar’s communication, faxed to Kenyon on June 15, 2001, instructed Kenyon “to enter the National Phase in United States on behalf of our client and in accordance with the *413 details shown on the attached sheet.” McCoy Decl., Ex. A-14.7 Mr. Treloar instructed Kenyon to file the application by June 17, 2001 and alerted Kenyon that this due date was “URGENT.” Id. Mr. Treloar further stated that “[i]n the absence of our specific instructions please keep this application in force.” Id. (emphasis added).

The scope of Kenyon’s initial engagement in 2001 was thus limited to the narrow task of “enter[ing] the National Phase in United States” of the international patent application and to keep the application in place absent further instructions from Portus.8 Acting on these instructions, Kenyon then filed an application for the national stage of the international patent application under 35 U.S.C. § 371 on that same day, June 15, 2001, two days before the deadline to file an application with the USPTO in connection with Portus’s international patent.

Portus’s claim of malpractice against Kenyon fails because Kenyon did exactly what it was required to do in its engagement: Kenyon filed an application pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 371 within two days and Kenyon kept the application in force and prosecuted the application until it was granted in December 2014.

Portus argues that Kenyon committed malpractice because Kenyon failed to advise Portus in June 2001 that Portus would benefit if Kenyon filed an application under 35 U.S.C. § 111 rather than under 35 U.S.C. § 371 in the event that the USPTO extensively delayed consideration of the application by more than three years. If such a delay occurred, Portus would then be eligible for a patent term adjustment under the AIPA. However, this advantage was entirely speculative and dependent on the subsequent extensive delay by the USPTO of more than three years between the filing of the application in June 2001 and the initial non-final action in January 2005. Nevertheless, Portus claims that Kenyon’s failure to advise Portus of the possible advantage of a 35 U.S.C. § 111 filing in June 2001 was malpractice.

The only advantage that Portus points to from filing a 35 U.S.C. § 111 application rather than a 35 U.S.C. § 371 application in June 2001 is the extended patent term if the USPTO delayed in approving the patent application by more than three years. But that advantage was entirely theoretical in June 2001 before any application had been filed. Portus points to no comparable case where an attorney was required to go beyond the limits of an engagement and advise a client about theoretical advantages of another course of action that were based on unknown future contingencies.

Portus’s argument fails because there was nothing about the June 2001 *414 engagement that required Kenyon to advise Portus about the theoretical advantages of another application, advantages that would accrue to Portus only in the event, which was entirely speculative in June 2001, that the USPTO delayed consideration of the patent application by more than three years. While it is true that a lawyer can be held liable for withholding facts that are “relevant to the client’s decision to pursue a given course of action,” Spector v. Mermelstein, 361 F. Supp. 30, 39-40 (S.D.N.Y. 1972), aff’d, 485 F.2d 474 (2d Cir. 1973), it is also true that “an attorney is not held to a standard of ‘infallibility’ and the ‘perfect vision of hindsight’ is an unreliable test for determining the past existence of legal malpractice.” Nomura Asset Capital Corp. v. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, 889 N.Y.S.2d 506 (Table), at *11 (Sup. Ct. 2009) (internal citations omitted).

Kenyon carried out its representation of Portus as requested by Portus and successfully prosecuted the patent after the non-final and final action by the USPTO until the USPTO eventually granted Portus a patent in December 2014. Just as in Davis Polk and Milbank, Tweed, the scope of the agreement between the parties in this case did not impose upon the defendant an obligation to advise the plaintiff about matters outside the scope of that representation. In particular, Kenyon had no free-standing obligation separate and apart from the scope of the engagement to advise Portus about the drawbacks and advantages associated with a continuation bypass application and a national stage application in June 2001 when Portus retained Kenyon. Portus retained Kenyon for the very narrow purpose of entering the national phase in the United States of Portus’s international application and keeping that application in force until instructed otherwise. See Davis Polk, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037 (“Thus, the issue whether plaintiff was primarily or secondarily liable for the subject tax liability was outside the scope of its representation.”).

The cases that Portus cites in support of its contention that Kenyon was negligent in failing to advise Portus adequately after being contacted on June 15, 2001 prior to filing a patent application with the USPTO are inapposite.

In French v. Hogan, 210 A.D.2d 658, 619 N.Y.S.2d 406, 407 (1994), the plaintiff had entered into a contract to purchase a residence and employed the defendant attorney to represent her in connection with the transaction. In affirming the denial of summary judgment to the defendant, the court noted that “there remains an unresolved factual issue as to whether, if timely advised of the existence of the restrictive covenant, plaintiff could have avoided at least a significant portion of her alleged damages” incurred when she converted the property from a residence to a bed and breakfast following her purchase. Id.

In French, the plaintiff did not receive everything that she sought under the engagement with her attorney because the building she purchased had a covenant preventing her from putting the building towards her intended use. In this case, unlike in French, it is undisputed that Portus received what it requested of Kenyon in June 2001, namely that Kenyon enter the national phase of Portus’s application by filing an application under 35 U.S.C. § 371 and that Kenyon keep the application in place unless Portus told Kenyon to do otherwise. Kenyon performed as requested, leading to the successful prosecution of the patent application when it was granted in December 2014.

In the other case cited by Portus, *415 Estate of Nevelson v. Carro, Spanbock, Kaster & Cuiffo, 259 A.D.2d 282, 686 N.Y.S.2d 404 (1999), the plaintiff corporation Sculptotek was created upon the advice of the defendant lawyer for the purposes of organizing the financial affairs of a famous sculptor, Louise Nevelson. After Nevelson’s death, the IRS determined that the corporation was a sham entity and that the corporate assets should be part of the sculptor’s estate. The determination was based in part on the lack of compensation to Nevelson for her artwork. The Appellate Division found that the attorney could be liable for malpractice for failing to advise their clients of the adverse consequences under the plan they recommended.

In Nevelson, the defendants failed to advise the plaintiffs on a central aspect of the plan that the defendants were retained to implement, namely the construction of a corporate structure that would survive an IRS audit. In this case, unlike in Nevelson, Kenyon did everything that Portus asked it to do in June 2001.

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Scales of justice

Statute of limitations and doctrine of continuous representation.

In Keshner v Hein Waters & Klein, 185 AD3d 808, 808-09 [2d Dept 2020], the court considered whether, on a motion to dismiss, the client was able to prove that there was a toll on the statute of limitations for legal malpractice based upon continuous representation, holding:

The statute of limitations for a cause of action alleging legal malpractice is three years (see CPLR 214 [6]). “However, ‘[c]auses of action alleging legal malpractice which would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations are timely if the doctrine of continuous representation applies’ ” (Farage v Ehrenberg, 124 AD3d 159, 164 [2014], quoting *809 Macaluso v Del Col, 95 AD3d 959, 960 [2012]; see Glamm v Allen, 57 NY2d 87, 94 [1982]). “[T]he rule of continuous representation tolls the running of the Statute of Limitations on the malpractice claim until the ongoing representation is completed” (Glamm v Allen, 57 NY2d at 94; see Farage v Ehrenberg, 124 AD3d at 164). “The two prerequisites for continuous representation tolling are a claim of misconduct concerning the manner in which professional services were performed, and the ongoing provision of professional services with respect to the contested matter or transaction” (Matter of Lawrence, 24 NY3d 320, 341 [2014]; see Williamson v PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 9 NY3d 1, 9, 11 [2007]; McCoy v Feinman, 99 NY2d 295, 306 [2002]).

Here, the defendants met their initial burden of establishing, prima facie, that the legal malpractice cause of action was untimely (see CPLR 214 [6]). In opposition, however, the plaintiff raised a question of fact as to whether the statute of limitations was tolled by the doctrine of continuous representation (see Kitty Jie Yuan v 2368 W. 12th St., LLC, 119 AD3d 674, 674 [2014]; Macaluso v Del Col, 95 AD3d at 960; Kennedy v H. Bruce Fischer, Esq., P.C., 78 AD3d 1016, 1017-1018 [2010]).

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Dude, Where’s My Lawyer?: attorney illness

Man sitting on a suitcase and looking through binoculars, illustrating an article about attorney illness by Richard Klass

She obtained a money judgment against a property owner for personal injuries she sustained. To collect the judgment, the injured plaintiff’s counsel retained Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer as special collection counsel.

Proceeding to declare there’s no homestead exemption:

Once a judgment has been entered, there are various enforcement measures available to the creditor to collect the money due on the judgment from the debtor. One of the most effective means of enforcing a Judgment is through a Sheriff’s auction sale of a debtor’s real property.

Prior to the Sheriff conducting an auction sale of real estate, there is a requirement under CPLR 5206 that the judgment creditor file a proceeding to determine whether there is sufficient equity in the real property over and above both the liens and mortgages on the property and, if applicable, the debtor’s “homestead exemption” from which the judgment may be satisfied. The homestead exemption represents a certain monetary amount of equity in a debtor’s principal residence protected from creditors.1 If the court determines that there is sufficient net equity, then an order may be entered authorizing the Sheriff to levy on the real property and conduct the auction sale.

Discovery on the issue of the homestead exemption:

In the proceeding to determine that the debtor’s house could be sold at Sheriff’s auction, the debtor claimed that the subject house was his principal residence. In response, the creditor was granted leave of court to conduct discovery proceedings on the issue of the debtor’s homestead exemption claim. Discovery demands, including interrogatories and document demands, were served upon the debtor’s attorney.

Despite having been served with the discovery demands, the debtor failed to respond to them. The debtor’s failure to respond to the interrogatories and produce documents continued even after the direction of the court in the preliminary conference order and a subsequent order. The creditor filed a motion to strike the debtor’s answer and preclude him from asserting the homestead exemption claim. Once again, the debtor failed to respond or comply. The court gave the debtor one last chance to respond. Needless to say, the debtor did not respond despite all of the chances afforded to him, and the court struck his answer and his defenses, including the claimed homestead exemption.

Debtor claims default was due to his attorney’s illnesses:

The debtor’s new attorney filed a motion with the court requesting that the order striking his answer be vacated because his prior attorney was suffering from physical and mental illnesses. The prior attorney submitted an affirmation stating that he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and was also suffering from mental illness, and that he has had to withdraw his representation in other cases.

In opposing the request to vacate the debtor’s default, the creditor argued (a) that the prior attorney failed to provide proof of mental illness; (b) from reviewing court calendars, there was no proof that the prior attorney withdrew from other cases; (c) the debtor failed to respond to discovery demands long before the default; and (d) the debtor still failed to sustain his burden of proving his claimed homestead exemption.

An attorney’s illness must be corroborated by medical documentation:

The judge laid out the criteria necessary to determine the debtor’s motion to vacate his default based upon the claim of his attorney’s illness, stating as follows:

“The illness of a party’s attorney, when corroborated by medical documentation, including the affirmation of a physician, suffices as a reasonable excuse for vacatur of a default. (Pierot v. Leonard, 154 AD3d 791 [2d Dept. 2017]; Weitzenberg v. Nassau County Dept. of Recreation & Parks, 29 AD3d 683 [2d Dept. 2006]; Norowitz v. Ponconco, Inc., 96 AD2d 581 [2d Dept. 1983]. [The attorney’s] alleged physical and mental health issues are not established by a doctor’s affirmation and therefore do not serve as a reasonable excuse to vacate the default. Nonetheless, [the attorney’s] initial default occurred prior to the alleged June 20th date of diagnosis, and [the attorney] fails to submit detailed submissions explaining the respondent’s delays in responding to the petitioner’s discovery demands, in complying with the court’s February 27th order mandating discovery, as well as his failure to oppose the petitioner’s April 16th motion to strike (compare with Hageman v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 25 AD3d 760 [2d Dept. 2006].

Finally, the Court notes that respondent’s Answer was stricken and judgment entered after a history of noncompliance with orders to produce discovery essential to this litigation. . . . The Court finds that given the history of this litigation, the explanation proferred by respondent and his former counsel is vague, unsubstantiated and incredible, and does not constitute a reasonable excuse for respondent’s default (see Herrera v. MTA Bus Co., 100 AD3d 962 [2d Dept. 2012]); Wells Fargo Bank, NA v. Cervini, 84 AD3d 789 [2d Dept. 2011]. Given the Court of Appeals’ guidance in Gibbs v. St. Barnabas Hospital, 16 NY3d 74 [2010], as well as Second Department case law cited above, the Court finds it would be an improvident use of its discretion to vacate the default judgment in light of respondent’s history of default and noncompliance. Further, prior counsel’s alleged illness, which constituted the excuse for the default, only accounted for a small period of time in which respondent was to have provided discovery.”

The judge found that the petition was entitled to judgment as a matter of law and granted the petition directing the sale of the debtor’s 100% interest in the real property.

Footnotes:
1 Currently, a judgment debtor’s “homestead exemption” amount depends on which county the property is located, which is as follows:

  • $170,825 if the property is in the counties of Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, Westchester, or Putnam.
  • $142,350 if the property is in the counties of Dutchess, Albany, Columbia, Orange, Saratoga or Ulster.
  • $85,400 if the property is in any other county.

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Scales of justice

Attorney not liable to client for testimony of a witness at a deposition

In Caso v Miranda Sambursky Slone Sklarin Verveniotis LLP, 180 AD3d 611, 612-13 [1st Dept 2020], the court held that the attorney was not liable to his client for testimony of a witness at a deposition:

Plaintiff’s contention in this legal malpractice action is that Arenas should have been better “prepared” for his deposition in the underlying personal injury action, so he could “remember” the statements he made to the detective. Plaintiff claims that, had defendants not been negligent, there would have been a plaintiff’s verdict. He claims that Arenas’s testimony damaged his case and prevented him from prevailing.

“[M]ere speculation of a loss resulting from an attorney’s alleged omissions … is insufficient to sustain a claim” for legal malpractice” (Gallet, Dreyer & Berkey, LLP v. Basile, 141 A.D.3d 405, 405–406, 35 N.Y.S.3d 56 [1st Dept. 2016] [internal quotation marks omitted]; Geller v. Harris, 258 A.D.2d 421, 685 N.Y.S.2d 734 [1st Dept. 1999] ). Plaintiff’s assertion that, had Arenas been better prepared, the jury would have returned a favorable verdict is pure speculation (Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 443, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385 [2007]; Brookwood v. Alston & Bird, LLC, 146 A.D.3d 662, 49 N.Y.S.3d 10 [1st Dept. 2017]. Defendants met their burden of showing that plaintiff cannot establish causation, in that plaintiff cannot prove that it would have prevailed in the underlying action “but for” defendant’s alleged negligence in preparing Arenas for his deposition (see Rudolf v. Shayne, 8 N.Y.3d 438 at 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385).

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Brooklyn Bar Association helps attorneys improve their resumes during COVID-19

Richard Klass in white shirt speaking at Brooklyn Bar Association, helping attorneys dealing with unemployment during COVID-19 pandemic.
Richard Klass (pictured), second vice president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, moderated the panel, which included attorney Andrea Bonina and retired attorney David Sarnoff. Screenshots via Zoom

Reported by Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor
opens in a new windowBrooklyn Daily Eagle
May 26, 2020

“More than two million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and lawyers are not immune. To help laid-off attorneys and people who are simply looking for a new job, the Brooklyn Bar Association held a continuing legal education seminar to help ensure that lawyers are putting their best foot forward.

“On Monday, May 18, Richard Klass, second vice president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, moderated a two-hour CLE entitled, “Resume Building and Interview Skills” along with panelists Andrea Bonina and David Sarnoff….”

#COVID19 #BklynEagle #BrooklynBarAssoc #CourtStreetLawyer


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When Clients Don’t Pay Their Lawyers

Red text reading "Always the Last to Know" with blue text "Be Paid" superimposed over the word "know" illustrating article about legal fees.

The crisis has been averted. The lawyer did a great job for his client. The lawyer sent his client the final bill for services rendered. Unfortunately, the client now had other bills to pay and the legal problem the lawyer dealt with was starting to appear very small in the rearview mirror.

The lawyer came to Richard A. KlassYour Court Street Lawyer, to sue the client to collect on the outstanding bill.

Complaint for Legal Fees Filed against Client

The lawyer commenced an action against his client alleging several causes of action in the complaint, including:

Breach of contract: A written retainer agreement with an attorney is an enforceable contract. As held in Jacobson v Sassower, 66 NY2d 991, 993 [1985], “as a matter of public policy, courts pay particular attention to fee arrangements between attorneys and their clients. An attorney has the burden of showing that a fee contract is fair, reasonable, and fully known and understood by the client.”

Assuming that the fee arrangements were fair to the client, the lawyer may establish his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law against the client on the cause of action alleging breach of contract by submitting evidence of the existence of a contract, the lawyer’s performance under the contract, the client’s breach of the contract, and resulting damages. SeeJoseph W. Ryan, Jr., P.C. v Faibish, 136 AD3d 984 [2d Dept 2016].

Account Stated: Many times, an attorney is able to prove that he sent his client monthly invoices and the client never said one word about fees; then, when the bill comes due, the client ‘wakes up’ and starts objecting to all of the attorney’s charges.

An attorney can make out a prima facie showing of his entitlement to summary judgment on an “account stated” claim by providing documentary evidence of the invoices, and an affidavit stating that he sent the invoices on a monthly basis to defendant, and that defendant received the invoices and failed to object to the invoices until this litigation. SeeGlassman v Weinberg, 154 AD3d 407 [1st Dept 2017].

Quantum Meruit: This Latin phrase basically means that one should be paid the reasonable value of services rendered on behalf of another.

If the terms of a retainer agreement are not established, or if a client discharges an attorney without cause, the attorney may recover only in quantum meruit to the extent that the fair and reasonable value of legal services can be established. SeeSeth Rubenstein, P.C. v Ganea, 41 AD3d 54 [2d Dept 2007]. A cause of action for quantum meruit requires a showing of “a plaintiff’s performance of services in good faith, acceptance of those services by a defendant, an expectation of compensation and proof of the reasonable value of the services provided.” SeeHyman v Schwartz, 127 AD3d 1281, 1282 [3d Dept 2015].

Pre-litigation Considerations

Before an attorney files a lawsuit to recover legal fees, there are a number of considerations as to whether it is worth doing. The commencement of a lawsuit by an attorney against his client ought to be the last resort after an attempt to resolve nonpayment. While not exhaustive, some questions to ask before suing a client may be:

  • Did the attorney achieve a favorable result? While not necessarily a defense, the client in unsuccessful litigation may perceive that the attorney provided no value.
  • Is the client judgment-proof? Will any judgment actually be collectible?
  • Is there a written retainer agreement? It may be required by Uniform Rules of Court Part 1215.
  • Were contemporaneous time records kept?
  • Was the client sent detailed bills at regular intervals?
  • Has the client threatened to sue for legal malpractice? An estimated 40% to 50% of legal malpractice cases emanate from an attorney’s collection case.
  • Is the amount of unpaid fees large enough to justify bringing an action?
  • Is there a requirement for service of a notice of the availability of fee dispute arbitration under Uniform Rules of Court Part 137.
  • Is there the possibility of pursuing a charging lien on the case, or a retaining lien on the file?
  • How long has the clock been ticking on the dispute? The statutes of limitations are three years for the client to sue for legal malpractice and six years for the attorney to sue the client to collect his fees.

– Richard A. Klass, Esq.


Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn, New York. He may be reached at (718) COURT●ST or RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Attorneys: finding jobs during the pandemic. CLE hosted by Brooklyn Bar Association.

Brooklyn Bar Association to host CLE to help attorneys find jobs during the pandemic

The Brooklyn Bar Association understands that younger and more inexperienced attorneys can struggle to find a good job even in the best of times, but things are especially tricky now that the COVID-19 pandemic has put severe restrictions on going out and building a network that can lead to a job.

That’s why three attorneys, past President Andrea Bonina, second Vice President Richard Klass, along with David Sarnoff, are planning to host a continuing legal education seminar that will live-stream via Zoom on Monday, May 18 entitled, “Resume Building and Interview Skills,” where they will share specific strategies that can help during the pandemic and beyond.

In a two-hour CLE, the three panelists will start with a deep dive into resume construction with suggestions for how attorneys should address gaps, and ways to be concise and be specific with their language when it comes to specific skills. They will also discuss ways to network during the quarantine and will specifically go over routines that will work even after the pandemic is over.

R. A. Klass
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Liable for failing to take actions outside the scope of representation?

In Portus Singapore PTE LTD v Kenyon & Kenyon LLP, 16CV6865 (JGK), 2020 WL 1501886, at *5-6 [SDNY Mar. 30, 2020], the court dealt with the issue of whether the attorney can be held liable to his client for failing to take actions outside the scope of his representation. The court held:

In order to demonstrate that a lawyer was negligent “a plaintiff must show that an attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession” and that “the attorney’s breach of this professional duty caused the plaintiff’s actual damages.” McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714, 718-19 (2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “What constitutes ordinary and reasonable skill and knowledge cannot be fixed with precision, but should be measured at the time of representation.” Darby & Darby, P.C. v. VSI Intern., Inc., 95 N.Y.2d 308, 716 N.Y.S.2d 378, 739 N.E.2d 744, 747 (2000). Generally, “ordinary and reasonable skill” is determined by looking to standards of legal practice in the State of New York. See, e.g., Sokol, 468 F. Supp. 2d at 637 (discussing New York law practice commentary). Moreover, “[a]n attorney may not be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer.” Attallah v. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, LLP, 168 A.D.3d 1026, 93 N.Y.S.3d 353, 356 (2019).

In AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d 1033, 1035 (2007), following the liquidation of its parent company, the plaintiff corporation AmBase assumed primary liability for the parent corporation’s federal income taxes and secondary liability for all other liabilities. Following liquidation, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) found the parent company liable for six years’ worth of withholding taxes, which would be imputed to AmBase under the liquidation agreement. Id. AmBase retained Davis Polk “to represent [it] as agent for [the parent corporation] to resolve the tax issues currently before” the IRS. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Davis Polk then successfully challenged in the Tax Court the IRS’s determination that AmBase was liable. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1035. AmBase then turned around and sued Davis Polk for legal malpractice on the ground that Davis Polk had failed to advise AmBase that AmBase was only secondarily liable for payment of taxes. Id. AmBase alleged that although it ultimately prevailed in the Tax Court, Davis Polk’s negligence forced AmBase to maintain a multi-million-dollar loss on its books, thereby creating an appearance of insolvency that resulted in lost business opportunities. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1036.

The New York Court of Appeals noted that the plain language of the retainer agreement “indicates that Davis Polk was retained to litigate the amount of tax liability and not to determine whether the tax liability could be allocated to another entity.” Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Noting that “the issue whether plaintiff was primarily or secondarily liable for the subject tax liability was outside the scope of its representation,” the court held that the “defendants exercised the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession when they focused their efforts on the controversy between AmBase and the IRS – the subject of the retainer agreement – resulting in a most favorable outcome, which was publicly praised by AmBase principals.” Id.

Similarly, in Milbank, Tweed, the law firm agreed in its engagement letter to represent the plaintiff “to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration” of the plaintiff’s expulsion from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. 93 N.Y.S.3d at 355. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint that had alleged malpractice on the ground that Milbank, Tweed did not actually negotiate the plaintiff’s readmission to the school. Id. at 356. The court reasoned that an attorney cannot be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer and that negotiation with the school went beyond the stated scope of the agreement letter. Id.

Davis Polk and Milbank, Tweed stand for the proposition that the failure by a lawyer to take actions outside the scope of that lawyer’s representation of a client cannot form the basis of a legal malpractice suit.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Breach of contract action against an attorney

The court in Judd Burstein, P.C. v Long, 797 Fed Appx 585, 587-88 [2d Cir 2019] recited the law regarding certain damages in the context of a breach of contract action against an attorney: Under New York law, it is well established that where “[a]ttorney’s services” are “the substance of the action alleging a breach of the retainer agreement,” such as here, “the costs of obtaining substituted services [are] … consequential damages.” Hinman, Straub, Pigors & Manning, P.C. v. Broder, 89 A.D.2d 278, 456 N.Y.S.2d 834, 836 (1982); accord *588 Affiliated Credit Adjustors, Inc. v. Carlucci & Legum, 139 A.D.2d 611, 527 N.Y.S.2d 426, 428 (1988) (stating, in the context of an action for legal malpractice, that legal fees “allegedly incurred in retaining alternate counsel to perform the services for which the defendants were originally retained … [are] not merely an incident of litigation but, instead, constitute[ ] consequential damages which may be recoverable”). Such damages “may include litigation expenses incurred in an attempt to avoid, minimize, or reduce the damage caused by the attorney’s wrongful conduct.” Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 443, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385 (2007) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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