Legal malpractice context…continuous representation doctrine…generally limited to…a specific legal matter…

In Goodman v Weiss, Zarett, Brofman, Sonnenklar & Levy, P.C., 199 AD3d 659, 661-62 [2d Dept 2021], court affirmed the dismissal the client’s malpractice action as time-barred, holding:

The plaintiff contends that the defendant’s malpractice consisted of improperly negotiating his separation from his previous employer and his new employment contract with the hospitals. However, an action alleging legal malpractice must be commenced within three years from the date of accrual (see CPLR 214 [6]). A claim accrues when the malpractice is committed, not when the client discovers it (see Shumsky v Eisenstein, 96 NY2d 164, 166 [2001]). “Causes of action alleging legal malpractice which would otherwise be time-barred are timely if the doctrine of continuous representation applies” (DeStaso v Condon Resnick, LLP, 90 AD3d 809, 812 [2011]). “In the legal malpractice context, the continuous representation doctrine tolls the statute of limitations where there is a mutual understanding of the need for further representation on the specific subject matter underlying the malpractice claim” (id. at 812). Application of the continuous representation doctrine is generally “limited to the course of representation concerning a specific legal matter . . . ; [t]he concern, of course, is whether there has been continuous [representation], and not merely a continuing relation” between the client and the lawyer (Shumsky v Eisenstein, 96 NY2d at 168 [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Contrary to the plaintiff’s contention, the legal malpractice cause of action at issue was time-barred under CPLR 214 (6), and the continuous representation doctrine did not toll the statute of limitations. That doctrine “tolls the running of the statute of limitations on a cause of action against a professional defendant only so long as the defendant continues to represent the plaintiff[s] in connection with the particular transaction which is the subject of the action and not merely during the continuation of a general professional relationship” (Maurice W. Pomfrey & Assoc., Ltd. v Hancock & Estabrook, LLP, 50 AD3d 1531, 1533 [2008] [internal quotation marks omitted]). Although the plaintiff alleges that the defendant continued to provide legal services to him between January 2011 and November 2013, he did not seek or obtain the defendant’s legal services at any time during that period and, when the plaintiff did subsequently engage the defendant’s legal services, that engagement was with regard to the performance of distinct services related to a different subject matter. Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly determined that the continuous representation toll was inapplicable and granted that branch of the defendant’s motion which was to dismiss the legal malpractice cause of action as time-barred.


Richard A. Klass, Esq.
Your Court Street Lawyer

#CourtStreetLawyer #continuous-representation

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.comcreate new email with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

© 2022 Richard A. Klass

Scales of justice

False Hopes, more dangerous than fears: default, action and modification of a Promissory Note

“False hopes are more dangerous than fears.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien

A friend made a $200,000 personal loan (“Lender”) to one of his friends (“Borrower). At the time the loan was made in 2016, the Borrower signed a promissory note[1] in favor of his Lender friend, promising to repay the loan within ten months with interest. According to the terms of the Promissory Note, if the Borrower failed to repay the principal and interest in full by its due date at the end of 2016, any accrued interest would thereafter be calculated at the default rate of twenty percent per annum. In addition, the Promissory Note stated that “[n]o term of [the Promissory Note] may be waived, modified or amended except by instrument in writing signed by both of the parties.”

Default on the note

The Borrower failed to repay the entire balance due by the due date and was, therefore, in default under the terms of the Promissory Note. Nonetheless, the Lender agreed to allow his friend to continue making monthly payments on the balance due. Finally, the payments by the Borrower became so sporadic that, in 2019, the Lender decided to sue his friend to recover the balance due on the loan.

Action brought on the note

The Lender retained Richard A. Klass, Esq., Your Court Street Lawyer, to file a claim for breach of contract based upon non-payment of the Promissory Note. He established his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the cause of action to recover on the note through submission of the Promissory Note, which contained an unequivocal and unconditional obligation to pay, and an affidavit setting forth the borrower’s default. See Intermax Eco, LLC v Eco Family Food Mart Corp., 172 AD3d 1040, 1041 [2d Dept 2019]; Boro P. Health Mgt., LLC v Boro for Health, LLC, 39 Misc 3d 1229(A)972 N.Y.S.2d 142 [Sup Ct 2013].

There was no modification of the note.

In response to the Lender’s lawsuit, the Borrower put up the defense that the terms of the note were modified through a series of email exchanges between him and the Lender. The Borrower filed an affidavit alleging that he made payments over the course of several years which the lender accepted; and the loan was, thus, modified.

As urged by the Lender, the alleged defense of loan modification (based on the fact that the Lender took payments from his friend after the loan came due) completely missed the point — by its own terms, the Promissory Note became due and owing in 2016. Since the Promissory Note matured by its own terms in 2016, the Lender was well within his rights to pursue collection, since the cause of action had already accrued.[2] The assertion that there was some sort of modification of the note or a waiver of same was belied by both the facts and law. While the Borrower attempted to rely on a short exchange of emails in which his friend was basically “chewing him out” for not repaying the loan, the email exchange did not rise to the level of contract modification required by the terms of the Promissory Note,[3] or established by law. The email exchange only showed that the Lender was looking for some good faith from his friend — and his friend couldn’t even do that much (he couldn’t even live up to the supposed offer he made, as evidenced from his small, irregular payments). The email exchange did not constitute an enforceable, written modification setting forth the terms of any extension of the repayment terms of the note.[4]

In JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. v Galt Group, Inc., 84 AD3d 1028, 1029-30 [2d Dept 2011], the court rejected a similar claim, that emails were alleged to have modified the terms of a note, holding:

To make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law in an action to recover on a note, and on a guaranty thereof, a plaintiff must establish “the existence of a note and guaranty and the defendants’ failure to make payments according to their terms” (Verela v. Citrus Lake Dev., Inc., 53 A.D.3d 574, 575, 862 N.Y.S.2d 96; see Gullery v. Imburgio, 74 A.D.3d 1022, 905 N.Y.S.2d 221). Here, Chase submitted the SBA Loan documents, including the relevant promissory notes, the personal guaranties, and evidence of the defendants’ default, which together established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the complaint.

Once Chase established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, “[t]he burden then shifted to the defendant[s] to establish by admissible evidence the existence of a triable issue of fact with respect to a bona fide defense” (Gullery v. Imburgio, 74 A.D.3d at 1022, 905 N.Y.S.2d 221; see Verela v. Citrus Lake Dev., Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 575, 862 N.Y.S.2d 96). The defendants did not contest the validity of any of the agreements, notes, or guaranties, nor did they dispute that they were in default. Instead, they submitted certain e-mails into evidence, and argued that they had entered into yet another agreement with Chase — a payoff/paydown agreement — by which Chase agreed to refrain from prosecuting the instant action while the defendants were given an apparently unlimited time to obtain a refinancing loan. Contrary to their contention, however, the Supreme Court correctly concluded that the e-mails contained no evidence of any such agreement between Chase and the defendants.

The Borrower’s expressions of hopes and aspirations to repay the loan set forth in emails, while perhaps well-intended, did not amount to a modification of the terms of the Promissory Note. The Lender was well within his rights to commence this action at the time he did, as the cause of action on the note accrued and the action was timely commenced, giving credit for all payments made. The emails, at best, presented his friend with an opportunity to “do the right thing” and repay the debt.[5] It was urged that the emails ought not be interpreted as a binding modification or waiver of any rights.

Doctrines of waiver and estoppel were inapplicable

The Borrower also asserted affirmative defenses that the action was barred by the doctrines of waiver and/or estoppel. In seeking dismissal of these affirmative defenses, the Lender suggested that these were inapposite to the facts established in this matter and there was no evidentiary basis upon which they could be supported.

The essence of a waiver is when a party intentionally relinquishes a known right. It is well settled that when there is a no oral modification clause, the doctrines of waiver, release and estoppel do not apply. (“Waiver is an intentional relinquishment of a known right and should not be lightly presumed”) Gilbert Frank Corp. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 70 N.Y.2d 966, 968 [1988]; Brooklyn Fed. Saving Bank v 9096 Meserole St. Realty LLC, 29 Misc 3d 1220(A) [Kings Sup Ct 2010]. In this case, the Promissory Note clearly contained a provision that no term of the Note may be waived, modified or amended except by instrument in writing signed by both parties.

“Equitable estoppel prevents one from denying his own expressed or implied admission which has in good faith been accepted and acted upon by another, and the elements of estoppel are with respect to the party estopped: conduct which amounts to a false representation or concealment of material facts, intention that such conduct will be acted upon by the other party, and knowledge of the real facts. The party asserting estoppel must show with respect to himself: lack of knowledge of the true facts, reliance upon the conduct of the party estopped, and a prejudicial change in his position.” Airco Alloys Div., Airco Inc. v Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., 76 AD2d 68, 71-72 [4th Dept 1980]. In the instant matter, the Borrower did not produce any evidence that there was an expressed or implied admission that was in good faith accepted and acted upon by another. Moreover, there was no false representation or concealment of a material fact. There was simply a binding Promissory Note, and nonperformance by the Borrower.

In granting summary judgment in favor of the Lender, the judge directed that the Borrower be held liable for the balance due on the Promissory Note. The judge also dismissed the affirmative defenses set forth in the answer.

End Notes

[1] “A promissory note is an instrument for the payment of money only, provided that it contains an unconditional promise by the borrower to pay the lender over a stated period of time.” Estate of Hansraj v. Sukhu, 145 A.D.3d 755, 755, 43 N.Y.S.3d 127, quoting Lugli v. Johnston, 78 A.D.3d 1133, 1134, 912 N.Y.S.2d 108).

[2] § 83:46. Time instruments: Maker and acceptor, 4C N.Y.Prac., Com. Litig. in New York State Courts § 83:46 (4th ed.) (“A cause of action on an instrument payable on a specified date or the occurrence of a specified event (a time instrument) accrues against the instrument’s maker (if a note) or acceptor (if a draft) on the day after the specified date or event.”); see, UCC 3-122, which provides in relevant part: “(1) A cause of action against a maker or an acceptor accrues (a) in the case of a time instrument on the day after maturity”)

[3] “No term of this Note may be waived, modified or amended expect by an instrument in writing signed by both of the parties hereto. Any waiver of the terms hereof shall be effective only in the specific instance and for the specific purpose given.”

[4] 22A N.Y. Jur. 2d Contracts § 475 (relevant parts). A contract may be modified if the contract provides for its modification. Fundamental to the establishment of a contract modification is proof of each element requisite to the formulation of a contract. Thus, to be valid under New York law, a contractual modification must satisfy each element of a contract, including offer, acceptance, and consideration. A contract cannot be modified or altered without the consent of all parties thereto. In other words, a contract cannot be modified without the mutual assent of each party. Thus, under general contract rules, an obligation may not be altered without the consent of the party who assumed the obligation. Also, when a contract prohibits modification without the express written consent of a particular party, modification without that party’s express written consent is invalid. Mere negotiations between the parties are insufficient to constitute a modification, but rather must ripen into a mutual, valid, and enforceable agreement to modify the old contract. (emphasis added).

[5] Genger v Genger, 123 AD3d 445, 446 [1st Dept 2014] “[i]ndulgence or leniency in enforcing a debt when due is not an alteration of the contract” (Bier Pension Plan Trust v. Estate of Schneierson, 74 N.Y.2d 312, 316, 546 N.Y.S.2d 824, 545 N.E.2d 1212 [1989]).


Richard A. Klass, Esq.
Your Court Street Lawyer

#CourtStreetLawyer #promissory-note

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.comcreate new email with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

© 2022 Richard A. Klass

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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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. Klass, Your 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. See, Joseph 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. See, Glassman 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. See, Seth 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.” See, Hyman 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.comcreate new email with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

© 2020 Richard A. Klass
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Once someone has sued …and the case is dismissed…

Scales of justice illustrating article about legal malpractice.

Once someone has sued another and the case is dismissed, the plaintiff’s claim is barred or precluded. In Manko v Gabay, 175 AD3d 484 [2d Dept 2019], the court held:

The plaintiff subsequently commenced the instant action against, among others, the Gabay defendants, asserting causes of action against them, inter alia, to recover damages for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. The Gabay defendants moved, inter alia, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against them. The Supreme Court granted that branch of the motion, and the plaintiff appeals.

We agree with the Supreme Court’s determination to grant that branch of the Gabay defendants’ motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against them as barred by the doctrine of res judicata, based upon the dismissal, on the merits, of the complaints insofar as asserted against them in the four prior actions. Under the doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, “a valid final judgment bars future actions between the same parties on the same cause of action” (Parker v. Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Co., 93 N.Y.2d 343, 347, 690 N.Y.S.2d 478, 712 N.E.2d 647). “[O]nce a claim is brought to a final conclusion, all other claims arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions are barred, even if based upon different theories or if seeking a different remedy” (O’Brien v. City of Syracuse, 54 N.Y.2d 353, 357, 445 N.Y.S.2d 687, 429 N.E.2d 1158).

This Court takes a “pragmatic approach” to determining what constitutes a single transaction or series of transactions for the purposes of res judicata (Coliseum Towers Assoc. v. County of Nassau, 217 A.D.2d 387, 390, 637 N.Y.S.2d 972). Thus, events are part of the same transaction or series of transactions where their “foundational facts” are related in “time, space, origin, or motivation,” where they “form a convenient trial unit,” and where “treatment [of the foundational facts] as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations” (id. at 390–391, 637 N.Y.S.2d 972 [internal quotation marks omitted] ).

The doctrine of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, is “a component of the broader doctrine of res judicata which holds that, as to the parties in a litigation and those in privity with them, a judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction is conclusive of the issues of fact and questions of law necessarily decided therein in any subsequent action” ( *133 Gramatan Home Invs. Corp. v. Lopez, 46 N.Y.2d 481, 485, 414 N.Y.S.2d 308, 386 N.E.2d 1328). Collateral estoppel will bar relitigation of an issue where “the issue in the second action is identical to an issue which was raised, necessarily decided and material in the first action, and the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the earlier action” (Parker v. Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Co., 93 N.Y.2d at 349, 690 N.Y.S.2d 478, 712 N.E.2d 647; see Jeffreys v. Griffin, 1 N.Y.3d 34, 39, 769 N.Y.S.2d 184, 801 N.E.2d 404; Pinnacle Consultants v. Leucadia Natl. Corp., 94 N.Y.2d 426, 432, 706 N.Y.S.2d 46, 727 N.E.2d 543).

Here, the complaints in the four prior actions commenced by the plaintiff against the Gabay defendants were all dismissed insofar as asserted against them on the merits pursuant to the order dated May 7, 2012. The claims asserted in the instant action arise from the same transaction or series of transactions that gave rise to the four prior actions, i.e., the legal assistance provided by Gabay to the plaintiff from November 2007 to December 2007. The majority of the facts alleged in the five complaints are nearly identical, with the only differences being additional causes of action asserted in this action and different entities named as defendants of which Gabay is a principal, differences which nonetheless relate “in time, space, origin [and] motivation” to the claims adjudicated in the four prior actions (Xiao Yang Chen v. Fischer, 6 N.Y.3d 94, 100, 810 N.Y.S.2d 96, 843 N.E.2d 723 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Smith v. Russell Sage Coll., 54 N.Y.2d 185, 192–193, 445 N.Y.S.2d 68, 429 N.E.2d 746). Inasmuch as all issues related to the plaintiff’s claims sounding in simple legal malpractice were fully and finally decided in the four prior actions, they are barred by principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel (see Kret v. Brookdale Hosp. Med. Ctr., 61 N.Y.2d 861, 863, 473 N.Y.S.2d 970, 462 N.E.2d 147; see also Altamore v. Friedman, 193 A.D.2d 240, 244–245, 602 N.Y.S.2d 894). The plaintiff’s additional causes of action alleging, among other things, deprivation of constitutional rights and conspiracy “could have been raised in the prior litigation” and, consequently, are precluded by the doctrine of res judicata (Matter of Hunter, 4 N.Y.3d 260, 269, 794 N.Y.S.2d 286, 827 N.E.2d 269; see Rowley, Forrest, O’Donnell & Beaumont, P.C. v. Beechnut Nutrition Corp., 55 A.D.3d 982, 984, 865 N.Y.S.2d 390).

R. A. Klass
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Standard on deciding motions to dismiss

In a decision reminding defendants of the standard on deciding motions to dismiss, the court in Jadidian v Drucker, 2019 NY Slip Op 03033 [2d Dept Apr. 24, 2019] held:

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), the court must afford the pleading a liberal construction, accept all facts as alleged to be true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see CPLR 3026; Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511; Santaiti v. Town of Ramapo, 162 A.D.3d 921, 924–925, 80 N.Y.S.3d 288; Berlin v. DeMarzo, 150 A.D.3d 1185, 52 N.Y.S.3d 878). A cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice requires proof that the defendant “ 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 duty proximately caused plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Dombrowski v. Bulson, 19 N.Y.3d 347, 350, 948 N.Y.S.2d 208, 971 N.E.2d 338; Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385).

Here, accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and according the plaintiffs the benefit of every possible favorable inference, the complaint sufficiently alleges a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice. The complaint alleges that the defendant failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession by failing to account for the potential outcome of the nuisance action on the use and occupancy of the premises and to protect the plaintiffs’ interests in relation thereto. The complaint further alleges that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the plaintiffs to sustain actual and ascertainable damages in lost rent and in settling the action brought by the Hive, and thus, validly states a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d at 443, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Bua v. Purcell & Ingrao, P.C., 99 A.D.3d 843, 847, 952 N.Y.S.2d 592; Wolstencroft v. Sassower, 124 A.D.2d 582, 507 N.Y.S.2d 728). Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s denial of that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the complaint.

Dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) is warranted only if the documentary evidence “ utterly refutes plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law ” (Goshen v. Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 N.Y.2d 314, 326, 746 N.Y.S.2d 858, 774 N.E.2d 1190; see Kolchins v. Evolution Mkts., Inc., 31 N.Y.3d 100, 106, 73 N.Y.S.3d 519, 96 N.E.3d 784; Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511). Here, the documentary evidence submitted by the defendant failed to utterly refute the plaintiff’s factual allegations. Accordingly, we also agree with the Supreme Court’s denial of that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the complaint.

R. A. Klass
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[ motions to dismiss ]

Critical to a legal malpractice action that the plaintiff prove the “ case within a case ”

It is critical to a legal malpractice action that the plaintiff prove the “ case within a case ” in order to sue an attorney. In Salans LLP v VBH Properties S.R.L., 2019 NY Slip Op 02611 [1st Dept Apr. 4, 2019], the court held:

plaintiff demonstrated prima facie entitlement to judgment in the legal malpractice counterclaim by showing that defendants could not prove that but for plaintiff’s failure to appear at the TRO hearing the hearing court would have denied the TRO or set a shorter return date (see Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP v. Fashion Boutique of Short Hills, Inc., 10 A.D.3d 267, 272, 780 N.Y.S.2d 593 [1st Dept. 2004] [holding that to establish a claim for litigation malpractice the client “ must meet the ‘ case within a case ’ requirement, demonstrating that ‘ but for ’ the attorney’s conduct the client would have prevailed in the underlying matter or would not have sustained any ascertainable damages ”] ). Defendants speculate that had plaintiff appeared at the TRO hearing, injunctive relief may have been denied or the hearing court may have adjourned the case to an earlier date. Such speculation is insufficient to sustain a claim for legal malpractice (see Freeman v. Brecher, 155 A.D.3d 453, 453, 64 N.Y.S.3d 13 [1st Dept. 2017]; Brooks v. Lewin, 21 A.D.3d 731, 734–735, 800 N.Y.S.2d 695 [1st Dept. 2005], lv denied 6 N.Y.3d 713, 816 N.Y.S.2d 749, 849 N.E.2d 972 [2006] ).

R. A. Klass
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