Striking the Affirmative Defense of Statute of Limitations in a Legal Malpractice Action

When a former client sues his attorney for legal malpractice, the defendant-attorney/law firm will almost invariably put forward, as part of its defense of the law suit, the Affirmative Defense of Statute of Limitations. In New York State, the period in which an attorney may be sued (whether for a tort [civil wrong] or breach of contract) is generally three (3) years from the date of malpractice. If the client does not sue the attorney/law firm within the applicable Statute of Limitations period, then the case is “time barred” and may be dismissed as having been filed too late.

When the defendant attorney alleges in his Answer to the law suit that the action is barred by the Statute of Limitations, it is essential to deal with the issue as soon as practicably possible. One effective way is to make a motion to the trial judge to “strike” (or dismiss) the Affirmative Defense from the Answer. Civil Practice Law and Rules [CPLR] Section 3211(b) provides that a party may move to strike an affirmative defense.

Affirmative Defense – Statute of Limitations

In a recent case, the defendant law firm asserted the Affirmative Defense that the legal malpractice action was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. In response, Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer, brought a motion to dismiss the Affirmative Defense. The motion requested that this affirmative defense be stricken, since it was alleged that the plaintiff-injured person brought the action within the applicable three-year statute of limitations period, as specified in CPLR 214(6).

CPLR 214(6) provides that “an action to recover damages for malpractice, other than medical, dental or podiatric malpractice, regardless of whether the underlying theory is based in contract or tort” must be commenced within 3 years.

The cause of action for malpractice accrues at the time of the act, error or omission. See, Julian v. Carrol, 270 AD2d 457 [2d Dept. 2000]; Goicoechea v. Law Offices of Stephen Kihl, 234 AD2d 507 [2d Dept. 1996]; Shumsky v. Eisenstein, 96 NY2d 164 [2001].

In the recent case, the allegation of legal malpractice against the defendant law firm was that there was a ‘blown’ statute of limitations because the law firm did not timely sue the potentially liable party. In that situation, the New York State Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court) has held that a cause of action for legal malpractice accrues against the attorney when the statute of limitations expires on the underlying action for which the attorney was retained. See, Shumsky v. Eisenstein, supra. In Burgess v. Long Island Railroad Authority, 79 NY2d 777 [1991], the Court of Appeals held:

A person has one year from the date a claim accrues to commence an action against a public authority such as LIRR (Public Authorities Law §1276(2). The complaint must contain an allegation that at least 30 days have elapsed since the authority was presented with a demand or claim and that the authority has neglected or refused to adjust or pay the claim. This “stay” of 30 days is not counted as part of the limitations period and the plaintiff therefore may serve a complaint at any time up to one year and 30 days after the claim has accrued.

In the case, the plaintiff’s incident was alleged to have occurred on June 4, 2003. According to Public Authorities Law §1276, an action would have to have been brought against the LIRR within one year and thirty days after the incident. The defendant law firm was alleged to have failed to timely do so and the time in which to do so passed on their ‘watch.’

The Continuous Representation Toll

The accrual of the three-year statute of limitations is ‘tolled’ during the period of the lawyer’s continuous representation in the same matter out of which the malpractice arose under the theory that the client should not be expected to question the lawyer’s advice while he is still representing the client. See, Lamellen v. Kupplungbau GmbH v. Lerner, 166 AD2d 505 [2d Dept. 1990]; Shumsky v. Eisenstein, supra. Under the continuous representation doctrine, there must be clear indicia of an ongoing, continuous, developing, and dependent relationship between the client and the lawyer. See, Kanter v. Pieri, 11 AD3d 912 [4 Dept. 2004]; Lamellen v. Kupplungbau GmbH v. Lerner, supra; Clark v. Jacobsen, 202 AD2d 466 [2 Dept. 1994].

In the case, the defendant law firm was alleged to have continuously represented the injured plaintiff up until August 2007, as represented by the proceedings brought on his behalf and the correspondence between the parties. Accordingly, the Statute of Limitations in which to sue the defendant law firm for legal malpractice for having missed the opportunity to have sued the proper party for the incident that resulted in the client’s injury started ticking when the law firm no longer represented him.

By Richard Klass, Esq.
“Your Court Street Lawyer”
Copyright 2010

Additional articles by our firm concerning legal malpractice:

Basic Elements of a Legal Malpractice Case

Client Cannot Sue His Lawyer for Nonpecuniary Damages

Harsh Rule of the Statute of Limitations in Legal Malpractice Cases

How the “Continuous Representation” Doctrine Helps Injured Clients

Judiciary Law Section 487

New York State Court of Appeals adopts “likely to succeed” standard in legal malpractice cases.

Proximate Cause and Attorney Malpractice

Striking the Affirmative Defense of Statute of Limitations in a Legal Malpractice Action

Wrong Side of the Tracks Costs Law Firm $800,000